Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

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NBC Sports

Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

Media day has come and gone. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have returned safely back to the United States. Coaches are valiantly holding onto their offseason beards. JaVale McGee is making 3s. 

The season must be around the corner.

It’s great to have the NBA back. With plenty to look forward to this season, let’s run through the top storylines and play a little buy or sell backed by some statistical insights.

SELL: James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be “scary” for opponents

Stat to know: Westbrook averaging 7.5 turnovers per 36 minutes this preseason.

Westbrook didn’t hold back at media day when he was asked about his reunion with James Harden in Houston, claiming, “It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you. It’s going to be scary -- not for us.”

I’m scared for the Rockets. I was worried about the Houston offense when the trade broke, and nothing in the preseason qualmed my concerns. Westbrook has always played like the runaway bus in “Speed” that can’t go under 50 miles per hour without exploding. Expecting him to settle down and play a surgical halfcourt game is unrealistic. He is not Chris Paul, for better or for worse.

Watch the 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show with Tom Haberstroh on MyTeams (Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. ET)

More concerning is the fact that Westbrook has turned the ball over a whopping 21 times in 100 minutes of action in the preseason, where defense is often optional. That’s not a good sign. The bulk of those miscues have come in transition, which has quietly been a problem spot for Westbrook, too. Last season, Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Preseason or not, the “Why not?” mentality steers him wrong too often on the court.

I was expecting Westbrook to dial it down a bit now that he joined Harden and the Rockets’ offense that ranked second overall last season in efficiency (OKC ranked 17th). But opponents aren’t terrified of this version Westbrook. Case in point: Even with Paul George, one of the most efficient scorers on the planet, the Westbrook-led Thunder ranked 21st in halfcourt points per possession last season, per Synergy Sports tracking. 

With Westbrook turning 31 years old following another knee cleanup (that also caused him to take some precautionary games off this preseason), it’s fair to wonder how effective he can be in his change-of-pace role. If Westbrook doesn’t polish up his game in the open court, it’s going to be a long season in Houston. And not in a good way.

BUY: Zion Williamson should make the All-Star team

Stat to know: 24 of Williamson’s 35 baskets have come off the dribble.

*Admittedly, this prediction doesn’t seem smart after Williamson suffered a knee injury in his last preseason game. But even if Williamson misses a month, I think his talent alone makes him a top-25 player, which lines up with All-Star status. Williamson’s rise has been incredible. A year ago, he wasn’t even the consensus No. 1 overall pick, and now he’s making Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, look like the one who just turned 19 years old. Just look at this clip. 

We can talk all day about Williamson’s leaping abilities, but his NBA-ready handle has been the biggest revelation of the preseason. He’s not just a bull on supercharged pogo sticks. The guy can put the ball on the deck and slice through a defense like few bigs can. This crossover and-one shouldn’t be possible for a guy who might be the biggest alley-oop threat in the league.

I charted his preseason performance and found that of his 35 baskets, 24 have come off the dribble, nearly 70 percent of his field goals. Some of them were power dribbles just before throwing down a thunderous dunk, but often times, he purposefully uses his handle to dart around unsuspecting defenders and finish off the glass with seasoned touch. Multiple times I let out an audible gasp after what he did to Jacob Poeltl on the perimeter. It’s clear Zion is more Giannis than he is Shaq. 

If Williamson can keep his health in check, he promises to have one of the best rookie seasons ever. I liked the New Orleans Pelicans’ chances to crash the postseason party heading into the preseason, and Williamson’s confident display of guard-like handle has only bolstered their chances. He’d probably be a lock for All-Star in the Eastern Conference and the buzziest player there. How can we make this happen?

SELL: Ben Simmons has officially added a 3-point shot
    
Stat to know: Fourteen of Simmons’ 17 career 3-point attempts have come with fewer than two seconds left on the game clock.

Yes, Ben Simmons looked comfortable when he hit that 3-pointer against the Guangzhou Long-Lions. Yes, he drilled it from deep, 27-feet deep to be exact. That shot, no matter how much space he was afforded, is no layup.

And it was fun! Who wouldn’t want to see Simmons with a reliable jump shot? (Besides the rest of the NBA, of course.) He’d be nearly unstoppable with another devastating tool at his disposal, like Superman adding the ability to control time. 

But I think we need to pump the brakes a bit. Putting aside that it came against a Chinese team that wouldn’t hold a candle to G-League teams, the shot came with 1.2 seconds left in the second quarter of a 38-point game. It had almost zero cost.

That’s notable because Simmons has shown almost no interest in taking 3’s in the flow of the offense when there’s real weight in the shot. He has taken 17 3-pointers in his career. Amazingly, fourteen of those 3-pointers have been quarter-end heaves. The other three 3-point attempts? Two came within the first 70 seconds of a half just as each team is warming up. The third came in a 16-point game late in the fourth quarter back in late March of his rookie season.

Until Simmons steps into 3-pointers in the flow of the offense, I’m not expecting him to pull a Brook Lopez and become a prolific shooter. Worth noting: When Lopez unveiled his 3-point shot for good in the 2016-17 season, he fired up 12 of them in that preseason; Simmons has taken one. And none since that game against the Long-Lions.

Maybe Simmons just needed to see the ball go in once to have the confidence to unleash it full-time. I hope that happens. While it’d make the NBA a whole lot more compelling, I’m not holding my breath that it’s here to stay. 

BUY: Stephen Curry will reclaim the scoring title

Stat to know: Curry is averaging 48.1 points per 36 minutes this preseason.

Surprise, surprise: Curry has been on fire this preseason. You should have seen this coming. For the last few years, Steph has been MVP-level Steph -- but only when Kevin Durant left the floor. I wrote about this phenomenon in 2017-18 when Curry was blistering opponents to the tune of 53.9 points per 36 minutes when Durant was off the floor. Yeah, 53.9 points. 

Now that Durant has left for Brooklyn, we’re going to see a whole lot more “vintage” Curry this season. He erupted for 40 points in 25 minutes against a real NBA defense last week even though most of those minutes came while sharing the ball with D’Angelo Russell. While Draymond Green led the charge, six different Warriors teammates assisted Curry’s buckets in that game, underscoring how much they’re going to rely on and seek out No. 30 this season.

One trend to watch is Curry attacking the paint. Twelve of his 37 buckets in the preseason have come in the painted area. The thinking was that the paint would be more clogged with Durant and Thompson not out there to spread the floor, but the Warriors have still found pockets for Curry to exploit. 

SELL: Kawhi Leonard won’t have “aggressive” load management program this season

Stat to know: Kawhi Leonard has rested for 207 of the Clippers’ 240 minutes this preseason.

If this preseason is any indication, NBA bettors and fantasy players will be in for quite the headache this season getting a grip on Leonard’s status. The talk out of training camp was that Leonard was finally healthy and wouldn’t rack up DNP-Rests like he did last season. This wasn’t like last season, when he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017-18 campaign in which he played just nine games.

But Leonard has rested more than any healthy player this preseason. He sat out the first two games of the preseason and then the team ruled him out for Thursday’s game against the Denver Nuggets before Leonard surprised everyone and decided to play. All of 11 minutes.

Leonard has played just 33 minutes in two preseason games, resting in the other three. Last preseason, Leonard played three of the Raptors’ five preseason exhibitions, logging 22.7 minutes per game. This is something different.

If anything, the Clippers are holding him out more, not less. It doesn’t seem like Leonard is ready to play everyday, or close to it. Here’s what Leonard told ESPN after his 11-minute game: "I mean, I haven't played no type of contact basketball, no pickup at all. Normally don't do that. Really wasn't able to work out like I wanted to this summer, but it's always rest if you are not playing. It's a long season.”

With Paul George expected to miss the first month of the season, the sense here is that the Clippers take a cautious approach this season with its two stars. After a media day brimming with optimism, reality has begun to set in. I’d be surprised if Leonard plays more than 60 games this season. 

SELL: The Lakers need a third star to step up

Stat to know: Zero teams have a healthy trio of reigning All-Stars.

By trading for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, the Lakers have, in my book, the best duo on the planet. Now sure, after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending torn ACL, the dropoff from James and Davis to the Lakers’ next-best player is steep. But I don’t think that’ll be a problem this season.

Look around the league. There are no more superteams in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (when his shoulders heal) will be a dominant duo, but there isn’t a Warriors-like juggernaut right now. One could argue that the Warriors have four All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, D’Angelo Russell and Draymond Green. But Thompson can’t play, Russell was an All-Star fill-in in a weak conference and Green didn’t make the team last year. 

The pressure will be on Kyle Kuzma to become the Lakers’ third star, but I don’t think he’s ready. Physically, I’m worried about the stress fracture in his left foot that sidelined him all preseason and also kept him out of the Team USA trip. It’s the same problematic foot and ankle that prematurely ended each of his last two seasons, making this more of a chronic issue than an isolated one. Skill-wise, I think he’s better suited as a Lou Williams-type off the bench.

Even if Kuzma struggles to ascend to star status, the Lakers should still be able to tread water in the regular season and step on the gas come April, May and June. With the flattened landscape of contenders, every team is searching for that third bonafide star. The Lakers’ championship viability rests purely on James and Davis being healthy when April rolls around. If another contender springs for Kevin Love or Bradley Beal at the trade deadline, that calculus might change. But for now, the Lakers’ shouldn’t sweat their top-heavy roster.

BUY: Jayson Tatum is making the leap

Stat to know: Jayson Tatum has a 29.8 usage rate this preseason.

After a disappointing sophomore campaign, Tatum appears ready to take over as the No. 1 option for the Celtics. Coming off an injury-shortened stint with Team USA, Tatum looks nothing like the player that lurked in the shadows last postseason alongside Kyrie Irving.

The Celtics have been waiting for this version of Tatum since the 2018 playoffs ended. This preseason, Tatum leads the team with a 29.8 usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by player while on the floor), while Kemba Walker (22.2), Jaylen Brown (18.0) and Gordon Hayward (15.5) have taken an early back seat. Putting aside Hayward’s alarming deference, Tatum’s role has expanded significantly thus far, blowing past his 2018-19 usage rate of 21.8.

Most notably, Tatum is trading mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers. Last preseason, Tatum took nine 3-pointers in 79 minutes. This preseason, he has taken 16 in 63 minutes, about double his rate from the 2018-19 regular season (9.1 vs. 4.6). By contrast, he has settled for just three shots in the mid-range area (16 to 23 feet). Though he’s only connected on 31.3 percent of his 3-balls this preseason, I’m not worried about him losing his touch from deep. His assertiveness was what held him back from climbing into the All-Star discussion.

Tatum still needs to draw contact and get to the free throw line more, but his confidence level after the Team USA experience is promising. If Tatum keeps this up, the Celtics should be knocking on the Milwaukee Bucks’ and Philadelphia 76ers’ doors at the top of the East.

BUY: Utah Jazz are a title contender

Stat to know: Jazz were plus-303 last season with Rudy Gobert as the lone big on floor.

The Utah Jazz are a trendy pick to crash the Western Conference finals party, and I’m here for it. The additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic will certainly help take some of the scoring burden from Donovan Mitchell. But the main reason I’m bullish on the Jazz is their shift to the modern NBA and putting four ball-handlers around Rudy Gobert.

Gone are the days that they would play Derrick Favors alongside Gobert in a forced twin-tower formation. It’s about time. Last season, the Jazz were plus-303 in the 1,838 minutes (plus-7.9 per 48 minutes) that Gobert played without another conventional big on the floor and plus-81 in 739 minutes (plus-5.3 per 48 minutes) in all other lineups, per pbpstats.com. Gobert and Favors worked fine, but not at the highest of levels. It’s worth noting that the Jazz’s lone win in the Houston Rockets series, Game 4, came in the only game that Gobert and Favors never shared the court together.

Now you add Bogdanovic as the stretch four and things get really interesting. They may trot out Jeff Green or Royce O’Neale as the nominal starting power forward to keep players fresh, but a closing lineup of Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert will be a tough out for any team. 

The Jazz haven’t been sharp this preseason, but I’m expecting them to eat up some leftover “load management” wins and be right near the top of the West. If you’re not sold on the Jazz’s championship viability, the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors (plus-1850) had longer odds to start the season than this current Utah team (plus-1600). Get on the bandwagon.

SELL: The Milwaukee Bucks will retain the No. 1 seed.

Stat to know: Eight different teams have been the East’s No. 1 seed over the last eight seasons.

I’m down on the Bucks for a few reasons. One, I think the Philadelphia 76ers had the best offseason of any East power and will take their spot atop the East. Second, I see them missing Malcolm Brogdon’s ball-handling and shooting more than they expect. And lastly, I’m nervous about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s burnout factor this season.

Keep in mind, it’s hard to stay atop the East. Here are the last eight regular-season winners, starting with the most recent: Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Cavs, Hawks, Pacers, Heat and Bulls. No East team has repeated at No. 1 since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. In that sense, the Bucks falling back a bit would be completely normal.

Also, while most NBA superstars took the summer off, Antetokounmpo crisscrossed the globe with a dizzying itinerary. In a three-week span, he accepted the NBA MVP award in Los Angeles, flew to Greece to launch his new signature Nike Zoom Freak 1 shoe, visited Vegas Summer League and accepted ESPY’s Man of the Year in Los Angeles in the same day and then jetted to Milwaukee to celebrate the NBA MVP award in front of 20,000 Bucks fans. After that, Antetokounmpo flew to Greece for warm-up tournaments in Athens for his national team, flew to Shanghai, China, for another exhibition series, jetted to Nanjing for a pair of games and then was off to Shenzhen for two more games. 

A few weeks later at media day, Antetokounmpo talked about his fatigue: “It was obviously a really short offseason. Obviously, I was tired physically and mentally. We had the long season and then we had a lot of things to do with Nike, with my family and national team also. But I’m excited (for the season).”

The Bucks have unsurprisingly rested their MVP in two of their four preseason games. (Antetokounmpo looked unstoppable this preseason, including a 34-point, 11-rebound performance in just 23 minutes against Dallas.) But with the potential supermax extension looming over the season combined with his non-stop summer, I’m worried about Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ ability to shoulder all of the expectations. Antetokounmpo’s workload skyrocketed over the past 12 months as he became a global icon and it may be nothing compared to this upcoming season under the national spotlight. 

10. SELL: Markelle Fultz is back back.

Stat to know: Fultz is 0-for-15 on shots outside 15 feet this preseason.

I’m a sucker for a good redemption story, but put me in the wait-and-see category on the Fultz comeback in Orlando. He’s playing on a new team with playoff expectations. His last regular-season game was 11 months and one undergoing thoracic outlet surgery ago. Teams are still begging him to shoot. And the results still aren’t pretty.

Only Fultz knows how much of his issues last season were physical, psychological or situational, but the on-court problems are very real. While Fultz still has his bouncy, quick-twitch handle that can help him pierce opposing defenses, defenders are deliberately sagging five to ten feet off of him on the perimeter and daring him to launch from deep. He has missed all six of his 3-pointers and nine of his long 2s beyond 15 feet. Mechanically, he still has a ways to go before he resembles the University of Washington star that warranted being the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.

Then again, the Magic don’t seem to mind. Back in September, before seeing him play a game this preseason, Orlando picked up its 2020-21 team option that guarantees Fultz $12.3 million, making him its defacto point guard of the future. It’s genuinely good to see him out there playing basketball, but it’ll be interesting to see how much leeway he’ll get as Orlando tries to reach the postseason again. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

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NBC Sports

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

Well, that was quick. We’ve reached the one-month mark of the 2019-20 NBA season and, admittedly, it’s been a bit of a rocky start. Between the Golden State Warriors falling apart, a slew of PED suspensions hitting the league, and rookie sensation Zion Williamson still sitting out, things have not exactly gone as advertised.

But there are plenty of other feel-good storylines and fascinating developments that have made the season a pleasure to watch. Let’s highlight five trends that I’m buying or selling at this stage of the season.

BUY: Luka Doncic, MVP candidate

Don’t look now but the Dallas Mavericks have the top offense in the loaded Western Conference so far, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Can the average NBA fan name more than two starters on that team?

It starts with Doncic, who is averaging an astounding 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the 6-4 Mavericks. Those stats aren’t juiced by a turbo-charged NBA; Unlike the rapid-fire Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks rank just 20th in the league in pace. Instead, Doncic is seeing the game faster in his sophomore season and, well, he’s playing a lot faster, too.

Following a rookie season in which he was noticeably doughier, Doncic looks like he’s in better shape this season after taking the summer off from national basketball. A source close to Doncic says he’s largely kept away from bread and sugary foods as part of his effort to prepare for the 82-game grind. That’s no small thing for a 20-year-old who flies around the world for a living.

Doncic has trimmed the fat in his game too. He has taken two -- two! -- shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc this season, per NBA.com tracking. One was an 18-foot floater, which he made. The other was a late-game mid-range pull-up in the epic showdown against the Lakers (he missed). Doncic probably has a slick mid-range jumper, but he’s too good around the rim to settle there.

Like I mentioned on the Habershow with Brandon Payne, Doncic is a puppeteer. At least once a game, he’ll get a 7-footer to bite on his pump-fake in the lane and giggle on his way back on defense after he lays it in uncontested. It’s mean. He’s currently shooting 64.6 percent on shots in the paint, per NBA.com. Only three players have converted a higher percentage with at least 75 attempts in the paint: Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those three are dunk factories. Doncic has one dunk so far.

Doncic’s bag of tricks goes deeper than almost any NBA player at this point. And he will only get better as Kristaps Porzingis shakes off some rust and takes some pressure off of the Slovenian. The Luka hype is very real. 

SELL: The coach’s challenge

Doc Rivers has said it over and over: He hates the newly instituted coach’s challenge. And that’s probably because coaches aren’t winning the challenge much, if at all. 

Outside of the occasional out-of-bounds challenge, it’s been a frustrating experience for NBA coaches. Through Sunday’s games, there have been 95 coach’s challenges, with 32 calls being overturned, a success rate of just 34 percent. Drilling down even further, challenges on foul calls have only produced a 30 percent success rate, which makes sense given the nature of personal foul calls (Again, Doc really hates this rule.). The more clear-cut judgment calls -- out-of-bounds plays, specifically -- have been successful in six of the 11 challenges. That also makes sense; those plays are easier to see.

Behavioral economists will have a field day with the other aspects of the data. The league offers by-quarter breakdowns, which show that only six percent of the challenges have come in the first quarter, but those first-quarter challenges are tied with the second quarter challenges for the best success rate at 50 percent. Challenges in the fourth quarter, when coaches are possibly more emotional and using a might-as-well-burn-it mentality with the challenge, have the worst overturn rate at 24 percent. 

I don’t think the overturn rate is high enough to justify the buzzkilling stoppage in play. Fourth quarters in the NBA are long enough as it is and the overturn rate is so low that it’s mostly a waste of time. Tracking data from inpredictable.com provided to NBC Sports shows that NBA games this season are, on average, two hours and 16.4 minutes long, which is 2.6 minutes longer than this time last season.

The NBA deserves big kudos for transparency in this space. They didn’t just open their referees to extra scrutiny by implementing the coach’s challenge, but they’re also publishing the data from them to their media website. It’s also good for fans to know that the league wants to get calls right, but this is a one-year trial that fans shouldn’t expect to stick. Most of the head coaches I contacted agree with Doc. When asked whether he was for or against the coach’s challenge, one NBA coach simply responded back: “Ugh.” Another’s take from a long-time coach: “I’m a coach, not an official. Gets me focusing on the wrong things. Hate it.” And no, that’s not a quip from Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who finally got one overturned after six unsuccessful tries.

But here's my favorite bit of data. Every coach in the NBA had used the coach’s challenge through Tuesday’s games. Except for one: Gregg Popovich. That streak ended on Wednesday night when he challenged a foul call on LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Popovich lost the appeal. He may never do it again.

SELL: The Phoenix Suns are a playoff team

To be clear, I love what the Suns are doing right now. I’m a proud subscriber to the Aron Baynes Fan Club feed. That satirical Twitter account has been replying to viral NBA tweets with insanely pro-Baynes propaganda for years and it is somehow becoming more accurate by the day. Since being salary-dumped by the Boston Celtics this summer, Baynes has been absolutely fantastic as DeAndre Ayton’s fill-in, averaging 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists with a 70 percent effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers). Yes, Aron Baynes!

He’s the face of a suddenly very-grown-up Suns team under new head coach Monty Williams, who last coached a fiery New Orleans Pelicans team that held its own against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. After fielding the second-youngest roster in the league last season, the Suns added actual adults like Baynes and Ricky Rubio to the starting lineup next to Devin Booker and now they’re playing like an actual playoff contender. Three of Phoenix’s four losses went down to the final minute, including Tuesday night’s close loss to the Lakers. This is a team that could be 9-1 with a couple bounces going their way.

So why am I selling? This feels like a best-case scenario start to the season. Booker and Baynes aren’t going to make half their 3s all season. And I think Ayton coming back will actually hurt them. While his 25-game suspension looks bad from an optics standpoint, I think it actually helps the team win in the short-term with Baynes filling in his minutes. 

He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick, but Baynes does the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Baynes pancakes opponents on screens, ranks fifth in box-outs and is second in charges taken -- all while playing in just 24.3 minutes per game. Ayton, meanwhile, was among the least-impactful rim protectors in the league last season. It’s hard to imagine the Suns bringing their franchise big man off the bench, especially since he’s a favorite of Suns owner Robert Sarver, a fellow Arizona Wildcat. They could trade Baynes and his $5.8 million expiring contract to a contender. You know who could really use him? That team in Boston.

SELL: LeBron James’ double-digit assists

Just when you think you know a guy. In his 17th NBA season, James is averaging a career-high and league-leading 11.1 assists per game. He has never compiled this many assists in the opening 10 games of the season. The closest he came to this level was in 2016-17 when he registered 97 assists and 37 turnovers in the Cavs’ first ten games. This season, he has 110 assists, and four fewer turnovers (34). It’s obscene.

When the trade winds were swirling last February, I declared Anthony Davis as the best teammate LeBron James would ever have, better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. So far, so good. The on-court chemistry between the Klutch clients has been other-wordly. Of James’ 122 assists, 29 of them have been distributed to his new prized big-man Davis. No other Lakers teammate has more than 18, per Basketball Reference tracking

James is certainly on a mission to show love to Davis, who, as Bulls fans will remind you, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Using data from NBA.com’s stats page, James is feeding 25.5 passes per 36 minutes to Davis while they’re on the floor together. That’s a huge number. For perspective, Jrue Holiday sent 18.4 passes per 36 minutes into Davis’ hands last season when they shared the court. You think James is excited about his new toy?

With that said, I don’t think this keeps up. For one, it’s not a good sign that Davis’ shoulder is already giving him issues. If James’ favorite target goes down for any chunk of time, that’ll obviously hurt the King’s ability to rack up assists. Secondly, Rajon Rondo’s back. Lakers fans know how I feel about this clunky partnership. But the numbers don’t lie: James’ assist rate last season fell from 11.9 assists per 100 possessions without Rondo on the court down to 8.9 per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, per PBPStats.com tracking

It appears that Davis’ presence has given James new life, especially in the assist column. But Davis’ health and Rondo’s arrival doesn't make me optimistic about James’ ability to set a new career high -- even if the King and the Brow have been a joy to watch so far.

BUY: Pascal Siakam, back-to-back Most Improved Player

I’m all for breaking tradition. I know the Most Improved Player award is conventionally given to an up-and-coming player who ascends from plucky role player to legitimate star. Siakam’s selection last season was just that.

But what about star to MVP candidate? That leap is way harder to pull off and Siakam is doing it right now. You can see the door opening for Siakam’s candidacy. Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton’s injuries have delivered a significant blow to Boston and Milwaukee’s staying power atop the East. Kyle Lowry’s fractured thumb won’t keep him out nearly as long and Fred VanVleet can fill Lowry’s void better than Hayward and Middleton’s backups can for their respective clubs.

But Siakam is that good. He’s improved his scoring average more this season than he did the previous season, in which he won Most Improved Player. Siakam’s scoring average is higher than LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker entering play Thursday night. And it’s not because of unsustainably hot shooting, like in the case of Brandon Ingram and Booker. Siakam is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from downtown, which is more or less where he’s been in his career. 

The difference -- and this is so difficult in today’s NBA -- is that he’s maintained his efficiency despite nearly doubling his field goal attempts per game from 11.8 last season to 20.9 this year. His improved ball-handling and sharpened shot-making have made him a legitimate scoring alpha. To put Siakam’s scoring load in perspective, the 25-year-old’s usage rate is higher than Kobe Bryant’s in his age-25 season. 

Siakam’s climb is pretty much unprecedented, even when compared to his former Toronto Raptors teammate. It’s cliche to make the Kawhi Leonard parallel, but the truth is that Siakam’s rise has been steeper. Leonard didn’t become “MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard” until his sixth season in the league. This is Siakam’s fourth. And as crazy as Leonard’s ascension was, Siakam rose from a lower floor, averaging just 4.2 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 27th overall in 2016. (It’s early, but Siakam may end up being the best of a class that also features Ben Simmons, Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.)

With the top of Eastern Conference battered and bruised right now, the Toronto Raptors should remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. If Siakam keeps this up -- and I think he can -- there will be whispers about his MVP campaign. He might not win it, but if there’s a player who deserves to be the first two-time Most Improved Player award, it’s Siakam.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

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NBC Sports

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told NBCSports.com that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

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