Harden's superpower is at the center of Rockets-Warriors

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NBC Sports

Harden's superpower is at the center of Rockets-Warriors

To see why refereeing has become such a hot topic in this Golden State-Houston series, you must first understand this: James Harden may be losing one of his superpowers.

Harden’s bread-and-butter is drawing a foul on 3-pointers, one of the most valuable plays in basketball for a variety of reasons. At a minimum, it pushes a defender closer to fouling out. Secondly, a close-out defender may not contest as aggressively later if a foul is called earlier in the game. But by far and away the most important thing -- particularly in the case of an 86-percent free-throw shooter like Harden -- is that one whistle can almost guarantee three points.

In the case of Sunday’s no-call on Draymond Green contesting Harden at the end of Game 1, which the league deemed to be the correct non-whistle, those three points would have been critical. It would have tied the game and potentially sent it into overtime. That call never came, and now the Rockets are down 0-1 in the series, with both teams airing out grievances in the press about the Harden issue.

This is the game within the game. If Harden can draw that whistle regularly in the series, it can change the entire landscape of the 2019 playoffs. The volume of complaints may only get louder.

The numbers

The reigning MVP has the fouled 3-pointer down to a science. With a devastating stepback that causes defenders to lunge toward him, Harden tallied a league-leading 95 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season (75 three-shot fouls and 20 and-ones on 3-pointers), or 1.22 per game. You might expect that Harden would get more of these calls in the postseason because teams are hell-bent on not letting him get a clean look and illegal contact will ensue. But in this postseason, he has gotten only six such calls in six games, a decline of 18 percent. In the postgame presser after Game 1, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said that referees confessed at halftime they missed four of them. That’s 12 free-throw attempts in the first-half alone.

It wasn’t just a Game 1 issue. In fact, in each of the last three postseasons, Harden hasn’t gotten the foul call on 3-pointers as much. Last year, Harden averaged 0.97 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season, and it dropped to 0.76 in the postseason, a drop of 22 percent. In 2016-17, it dropped from 1.53 to 1.18 per game, a decline of 23 percent.

You might say that’s not significant, but in the playoffs, one missed fouled 3-point call can change a game, or tilt a series. It can also drag down Harden’s 3-point shooting percentage, which is now sitting at 32.9 percent, marking the fourth-straight postseason he has shot below average from downtown.

There’s a fatigue element as well. Those falls are tiring. The more that Harden tumbles to the ground and scrambles to his feet, the less fuel he’ll have in the tank for critical late possessions. When he gets a call and a trio of free throws, those basketball burpees are worth it. When he doesn’t, he’s a liability on the floor, especially in transition with a Golden State team looking to push the ball.

For referees, this isn’t an easy call to make. But as one former NBA official tells NBCSports.com, this could get ugly soon.

One former referee’s viewpoint

Three-pointers are more prevalent than ever, and are being attempted deeper than ever. Pace has ramped up to levels unseen since the 1980s. Geometrically, referees have to keep track of a larger expanse of action than ever before. Not only that, the federal ban on sports gambling has been lifted, bringing referees and the integrity of the game further into the headlines.

Game 1 was particularly volatile. There were four technicals and an automatic ejection when Chris Paul bumped into official Josh Tiven in the closing seconds, receiving his second technical foul of the game. It was a contentious game that was marked by bizarre late whistles.

“This stuff is hard,” said the former NBA official. “What the referees have to do is hard. They’re under a lot of scrutiny, more so than ever before. Look, when I refereed, the second round of the playoffs didn’t get any attention. This year, the first round got attention.”

The concern isn’t just about fairness. With emotions running high and Harden emphasizing the integrity of the whistle, this could veer into dangerous territory.

“The problem you run into now: As soon as Steph (Curry) goes up (for a shot), they’ll step under him,” the longtime official said over the phone. “Somebody’s going to do it, just to prove a point.”

Which presents another problem.

“The referee is going to call (the foul), and the Rockets will say, ‘See, we’re getting screwed.’”

Making this even more complicated is that Curry and Klay Thompson are nursing sore ankles from their previous series against the L.A. Clippers. One turn of the ankle could be a series-ender. To be clear, there’s no indication from the Rockets that they will retaliate or start to play dirty to send a message. But there’s gamesmanship at play, too.

Like a savvy lawyer, Harden raised the precedent of Kawhi Leonard getting injured in the 2017 playoffs when former Golden State center Zaza Pachulia impeded on Leonard’s landing space and Leonard missed the rest of the series with an injured ankle.

“We all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi,” Harden said after Game 1. “That can change an entire series. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called, and we’ll live with the results.”

Sunday was a challenging afternoon for 16-year veteran official Zach Zarba, who, according to multiple sources and confirmed by RefAnalytics.com tracking, was making his conference semifinals debut as the crew chief. Zarba has officiated in the NBA Finals and has served as the crew chief in the first round, but Sunday’s highly-anticipated Game 1 of the Western Conference finals rematch was his first in the second round.

“These are huge games,” said the former NBA official, noting Zarba’s debut.

That’s notable for another reason. According to an ESPN report on Monday, the Rockets produced an audit of missed calls in the 2018 Western Conference Finals last year and claimed to the league that the officiating cost them the title (The NBA disagreed with the Rockets’ methodology.). In Houston’s estimation, one of the factors behind that perceived bias, is that veteran officials “exhibit the most bias against our players,” and Houston argued that referee experience level should not be considered for postseason assignments.

However, that these audits came to light after Game 1 is an interesting turn of events considering the relative inexperience of Sunday’s crew. Beyond Zarba, Tiven is in his ninth season as an NBA ref (sixth postseason) and Courtney Kirkland is in his 19th season, but just his ninth in the playoffs. If the Rockets were worried about too much experience clouding judgment, this would be an acceptable crew.

It’s not uncommon for referees to review calls at halftime and admit they missed one or two. But the former NBA official found it surprising that a referee would fess up to four mistaken calls on the same type of play, which is what D’Antoni asserted over the weekend. It’s not a matter of honesty -- it could be a matter of time. A referee crew only has about 10 minutes to debrief, review film and prep for the rest of the game during halftime. When asked about D’Antoni’s claim, a spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association declined comment on Tuesday.

“That is an issue because referees can’t go public,” the former NBA official said. “It’s not unusual to say, ‘Yeah, we looked at the play, and we kicked it.’ To say, ‘We looked at all four, and we missed them all’ -- that seems like a lot.”

In the age of analytics and greater transparency around officiating, referee assignments are sure to be talking points for the foreseeable future. For instance, the crew chief for Game 2 will not be making his debut like Zarba. Instead, it’ll be Scott Foster, who is one of the most senior officials on staff. Referee assignments for Games 1-4 are decided before the series, but the league placed Foster on this series, even though he carries a long history with the Rockets.

In February, both Harden and Chris Paul were tossed with six fouls each, prompting Harden to tell reporters, “For sure, it’s personal. I don’t think (Foster) should be able to officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It was the only time that Paul has fouled out in a game this season. In 2018, after Foster gave Paul a technical foul, the point guard told the media, “That’s history there. He the man. That’s who they pay to see.”

Paul isn’t alone in his issues with Foster. In 2016, Foster was voted the NBA’s worst referee in a Los Angeles Times survey of players and coaches. After Paul’s disqualification in February, Paul took umbrage with Foster again, telling reporters, “I don’t know what else to do.”

The Rockets, who are steeped in numbers as much as any team, are surely aware of this Foster-related fact: Harden has fouled out just four times in 265 games over the past three seasons including the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking. Three of those games were officiated by Foster.

Does Harden have a referee problem?

Harden is so talented that he doesn’t need a favorable whistle to play at a high level. But this postseason, he hasn’t lived at the free throw line like he normally does. He’s been held to five or fewer free throws in three of his six games, winning all three with a scoring average of 29 points in those contests.

Part of that is how Utah guarded him aggressively at his left hip early in the first round. With 14 free throws in Game 1, Harden will have to continue trying to live at the charity stripe in this series; the Warriors’ offense won’t be as forgiving as Utah’s if Harden is on the ground trying to get a call.

Whether he can continue getting the whistle, especially on three-shot fouls, is something to monitor in Game 2. Harden’s free-throw attempts per game has fallen in each of the last four postseasons. None of those has resulted in a finals appearance. Maybe the noise surrounding this series will change his fortune.

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

How the remodeled Wolves are unlocking Andrew Wiggins

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NBC Sports

How the remodeled Wolves are unlocking Andrew Wiggins

Standing at midcourt just in front of Gregg Popovich, Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders shouts “33!” at Minnesota guard Andrew Wiggins. It appears to be a mundane late third-quarter possession against the San Antonio Spurs in early November, but what transpires next is a peek under the hood of the youthful and remodeled Minnesota Timberwolves.

It begins with Saunders, who, at 33 years old, is the NBA’s youngest coach. Saunders was just 10 years old when the guy a few feet to his right, Popovich, took over coaching duties in San Antonio in 1996. Despite the obvious symmetry, the “33!” play-call was not a reference to Saunders’ age, but rather an idea that encapsulates everything that’s different in Minnesota these days.

Saunders has been hell-bent on getting his team to maximize efficiency wherever they can. Part of that plan is to regularly execute two-for-ones -- a nerdy efficiency ploy at the end of quarters that has been a long been a favorite of the analytics crowd. The goal: take a quick shot with roughly 33 seconds left on the game clock to ensure the Wolves get the ball back for a second shot before the quarter ends. Even if they’re not great looks, two bites of the apple is better than one, the numbers say.

The situation against San Antonio is ripe for a two-for-one, but only if Wiggins listens. After collecting a rebound with 45 seconds left in the quarter, Wiggins could have tuned out his coach, dribbled around and forced a mid-range jumper with 22 seconds left on the clock, gifting the Spurs with the last shot of the quarter. But on this particular possession, Wiggins breezes past halfcourt, drives hard into the teeth of the Spurs’ defense, unleashes a dizzying spin move and dishes to the cutting Jake Layman for a wide-open dunk. 

The clock reads 34.3 seconds, just shy of the “33” target. Nearly perfect. A few moments later, Jeff Teague snares the ball away from the Spurs with 12 seconds left. The Wolves slow it down for the last shot. Wiggins calls for the ball, gets it, orchestrates a high pick-and-roll and pulls up for a deep 3-pointer. Swish. 

The bench breaks out in joyous hysteria. Minnesota assistant coach and former NBA player Pablo Prigioni gives a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump. Jordan Bell gets down on one knee and mockingly stares down the Spurs. Karl-Anthony Towns promptly introduces the world to KATDance.

And Saunders? “I almost wept tears of joy,” Saunders jokes now, looking back.

That stretch was one of many signals that the Wolves, one of the youngest teams in the league, are buying in to Saunders’ new approach. And that includes the most inefficient high-volume shooter in the league last season, Andrew Wiggins.

* * * 

Gersson Rosas isn’t naive. Despite deploying two former No. 1 overall picks in Wiggins and Towns, Rosas understands that turning the Wolves into a championship contender won’t happen overnight. This will take time. Hired away from the Houston Rockets this summer to oversee basketball operations, Rosas set out to find a head coach for the future, or what he labels as “his partner” in Minnesota.

After taking over for Tom Thibodeau last January as interim head coach, Saunders became the early favorite. The son of a local icon, the late Flip Saunders, Ryan Saunders was a purebred Minnesotan with deep roots in the Twin Cities. But Rosas felt Saunders was a coaching prodigy when the two met almost a decade ago when Saunders was an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards fresh out of college. Saunders had helped develop an iPad app called Gametime Concepts that tracked pick-and-roll efficiencies in real-time on the bench -- unheard of in the NBA world. The two kept in touch over the years and became close, regularly grabbing lunch on days when the Wolves and Rockets played each other.

“I consider Gers one of my best friends,” Saunders says. “We go way back.”

Still, Rosas wasn’t going to hand Saunders the job. Rosas brought in several candidates for the head-coaching job and interviewed Saunders like he was just another hopeful. Saunders had to earn the job the old-fashioned way. 

“We had some really great candidates,” Rosas says now. “But at the end of the day, Ryan was an ideal partner. Not just in terms of the person and the character he is, but the approach and philosophy. I give Ryan a ton of credit. He knows these guys better than most and that’s a huge advantage. To search for a partner to execute this vision, that’s a built-in advantage.”

Both Rosas and Saunders knew that helping Wiggins fulfill his potential would be key to the Wolves’ success and Saunders’ relationship with Wiggins was at the center of it all. The two have been close ever since their professional lives merged in 2014, when the Wolves traded for Wiggins and Saunders joined his father on Minnesota’s bench. When Saunders married his wife Hayley in 2017, he made sure Wiggins was there. When Saunders found out he and Hayley were expecting their first child due this past June, Wiggins was one of the first calls he made. When Saunders won his first game last season, Wiggins made sure he was the first to dap up the interim coach -- that is, after the team mauled Saunders with hugs, cheers and bottled water in the postgame locker room.

Basketball joy has been hard to come by for Wiggins. Since signing a $147 million max contract in 2017, Wiggins has been something of a punching bag in NBA circles. The Kansas Jayhawk had developed a sticky reputation of the bad-team, good-stats guy. When ESPN left Wiggins off their annual top-100 list in October, Wiggins fired back, saying “There’s not 100 players better than me, so it doesn’t matter what people think. My job is to come out here and hoop, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Unlocking Wiggins was going to take some tough love, but Saunders wasn’t going to do it alone.

* * * 

The turning point came in a Bahamian piano bar back in August. During the Wolves’ three-day getaway to the BahaMar resort on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas, Saunders and Rosas wanted a heart-to-heart chat with the 24-year-old Wiggins. This was going to be a big season for Wiggins, whose salary and productivity had been heading in opposite directions. But with a new front office and a handpicked coaching staff, this was seen as a new chapter for Wiggins.

Wiggins agreed and told them to meet him at the aptly-named Jazz Bar, a karaoke bar on the resort premises. As tunes from the 80s and 90s poured through the speakers, Rosas and Saunders shared a bottle of wine with Wiggins, talking about life and family and the future. 

Wiggins could sense that Rosas was a family man when Rosas’ 3-year-old twins crashed his introductory press conference in May and climbed into Rosas’ lap on stage. But it was a summer afternoon workout at the Minnesota practice facility that really stuck with Wiggins. While Wiggins got his shots up, Wiggins’ girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, and their 1-year-old daughter made an impromptu visit to the facility to watch the workout alongside Rosas. At one point, Wiggins looked over and saw Rosas lifting up his daughter into his arms.

“He held my daughter like his own,” Wiggins told The Athletic in June. “He said he’s a big family guy, and so am I, and I feel like that goes a long way right there.”

Back in the Bahamas lounge, the three fathers connected about what they saw in themselves and what they wanted to be.

“It wasn’t always rah-rah feel-good stuff,” Rosas says. “It was at times a hard conversation. He let us know that he wanted to be successful and not only that, he wanted to be successful here.”

Says Rosas: “If I wanted to find a player at his age, with his physical tools, with his talent and upside, I couldn’t find somebody like that on the trade market or free agent market. You can’t help but invest in that and see what you have.”

Rosas and Saunders wanted to reach Wiggins on a personal level, but also empower him and his teammates with a world-class support staff. That investment required infrastructure with an eye toward efficiency, so Rosas hired former Rockets colleague Sachin Gupta as executive VP of basketball operations. An MIT graduate, the architect of the ESPN Trade Machine and later, Sam Hinkie’s co-pilot running the Philadelphia 76ers, Gupta is renowned in NBA circles for being an ideas man. To upgrade the player health department, Rosas added Robby Sikka, a well-respected injury guru from the Mayo Clinic, as VP of basketball performance and technology. Under Rosas’ leadership, the Wolves even revamped their nutrition program, partnering with James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen and Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, both culinary icons in the Twin Cities.

“We’ve reformatted the organization,” Rosas says. “On the court and off the court. How we treat our players. How we accommodate our players. How we invest in our players.”

Those investments are paying early returns.

* * * 

Saunders decided to run an experiment during training camp. With the season around the corner, Saunders is on the hunt for what he calls “the little things,” the small areas of the game where the Wolves can leverage their youthful energy and fresh intel.

“Take care of the little things,” Saunders says over the phone, “and they’ll become big things.”

On this day, Saunders is particularly interested in the direction of the ball after a missed corner 3.

Popularized by Popovich and the Spurs, corner 3s are a hallmark of the analytics movement because of their floor-spacing value and the fact that they go in more than your average 3-pointer. While 3-point attempts have doubled since 1996-97, corner 3s have tripled in frequency, from 2.4 per game to 7.3, per NBA.com tracking. To Saunders, and the Wolves’ new front office, this presented something of an opportunity.

In the offseason, Gupta and Minnesota’s analytics team noticed they could generally predict where misses from certain areas of the court would fall off the rim. The landing spot of corner 3s, in particular, were easier to forecast. If the Wolves could get to those rebound locations before the opponent -- Saunders now calls them “hot spots” -- could they find an edge, however small it might be? 

Possibly, but Saunders needed to see it to believe it. At practice in camp, Gupta, Rosas and Saunders stood shoulder-to-shoulder about eight feet from the rim. They asked one of their wing players to shoot 3s from the corner. The rest of the roster eagerly watched from the sidelines, waiting to watch the magician’s act.

The first miss hit Saunders in the chest. Promising. The next one, again, directly to the hot spot. The players yelped in anticipation. The next three shots -- boom, boom, boom -- bounced off the rim and fell into the trio’s hands. The gym was floored. And more importantly, sold.

“The players thought it was rigged,” Rosas says. “First day we put it in, it was like, bang, bang, bang, bang. And all of us were looking at each other like, man, this thing works.”

After pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Saunders engineered a plan to have a designated weak-side defender crash the hot spot as soon as a corner 3-pointer was launched. The results so far have been astonishing. Minnesota has rebounded 90.7 percent of opponent corner 3s, which is the single-best mark in the pbpstats.com statistical database dating back to the 2000-01 season. 

On the other side of the floor, the Wolves are reaping the benefits of these hot spots. Minnesota has the third-highest offensive rebound rate on its own corner 3s entering play Thursday, with one player in particular showing a keen eye for these hot spots. 

The team’s leader in corner 3 rebounds? That would be Wiggins. His corner 3 rebound rate has tripled since last season, grabbing 34 percent of the available boards compared to just 12 percent last season. It represents another small but meaningful change.

* * * 

Back in San Antonio in early November, Saunders is practically giddy over what he’s just seen. It isn’t just that Wiggins followed Saunders’ instructions and played for the two-for-one. It was the choice he made that showed just how far Wiggins has come.

When Rosas was hired this summer, one of his first on-court priorities was to clean up the Wolves’ shot selection. For the past decade, Rosas was the Houston Rockets’ No. 2 in command behind Daryl Morey. The Rockets pioneered a league-wide movement in shot selection, commonly dubbed “MoreyBall,” where teams emphasize 3-pointers, free throws and shots at the rim and de-emphasize the less efficient shots in the mid-range.

The Wolves had lagged far behind the rest of the league in this area. At the time of Thibodeau’s departure in January 2019, the Wolves had taken the seventh-most mid-range jumpers per game in the league and the eight-fewest 3-pointers despite hitting both shots at an almost identical rate (36.6 percent on long 2s and 35.6 percent on 3s). By simply stepping inside the line, the Wolves were giving away free points.

“How do we communicate that effectively to the players?” Rosas says now. “We don’t want to be telling our players, ‘Don’t do that.’ The negatives are not a big part of our vocabulary.”

So they turned to stickers. Rather than tell players about point values, they showed them. Literally. The Wolves placed stickers throughout their practice court showing the expected point values of certain shots on the court, encased in a rectangle. For high value shots, they filled the box with green. For low value shots, they filled it with red. It was a simple way to visualize their value proposition.

“It’s not that we don’t want to shoot long 2s,” Rosas says. “But we believe in high value shots. We have to shoot the right shots.”

The stickers are strategically placed. Two straddle the 3-point line on the wing. Just outside the line, a green box says “1.3” showing the expected point value. Just inside the line, a red box reads “0.9.” (The stickers could be seen in the viral video of Towns and three other Wolves players synchronized Eurostepping off the floor in the middle of a pick-and-roll action).

So far, the stickers are having their intended effect. The Wolves have seen the largest increase in 3-point attempts compared to last season compared to other teams across the league. Only Rosas’ former team, the Rockets, have taken more 3-pointers than Minnesota this season.

Of course, the shots haven’t been falling. The team is shooting just 31.3 percent on 3s, the third-lowest figure in the NBA. But Saunders has preached persistence, and the message has stuck with Wiggins. After shooting 0-for-4 and 0-for-3 from deep in the first two games of the season, Wiggins has doubled down on 3-pointers since, taking no fewer than five in each game, converting at a 36-percent clip.

“It’s building the foundation,” Rosas says. “I’m a big believer, and Ryan’s a big believer, that the results are going to come.”

* * * 

Skeptics may claim that we’ve seen this from Wiggins before. In 2016-17, he averaged 27.4 points per game over the team’s first 11 games under Thibodeau. It proved to be little more than small-sample-size theater, buttressed by an early 47-point outing rather than consistency.

It got worse last season when Wiggins ranked 40th among 40 players in effective field goal percentage (minimum 15 attempts per game). But there are signs that Wiggins has fundamentally changed his game, thanks in part, at least, to Saunders’ commitment to the little things. With a healthier shot profile, Wiggins now ranks 15th among 42 players on the effective field goal percentage leaderboard, just behind James Harden.

Wiggins’ growth can also be seen outside of the scoring column. Before missing the last four games, Wiggins had registered five straight games with at least five assists per game. Before this season, his longest such streak lasted two games -- when he was a rookie. More importantly, while Wiggins’ assist rate is up, his turnovers are down, and his defense, long a sticking point around the league, is finally showing consistent results. Entering play Wednesday, Wiggins had strung together eight consecutive games with a blocked shot, something he hadn’t done until Saunders took over coaching duties. The Wolves have also held opponents to just 106 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins and Towns on the floor, compared to an ugly 111.2 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com.

“We’re not saying it, we’re doing it,” Rosas repeats. “Actions over words.” 

Rosas downplays the team’s 8-7 start and says he’s more interested in the culture change, the process behind the scenes. He loves what he’s seeing from Towns (“His competitive fire and his competitive nature is coming through”) and Wiggins and the supporting cast of energetic youngsters like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. But the longtime Rockets executive continues to emphasize the long-term vision. 

“I was fortunate to be around Houston when Hakeem Olajuwon was winning championships, but that doesn’t happen until he’s 33 (years old),” Rosas says. “James Harden wins an MVP at 29. You’re talking about a couple of players in Karl and Andrew who are 24. Their best basketball is far ahead of them.”

Rosas pauses. He’d like to talk more about the process, not the win-loss record. To the Wolves, Wiggins is scratching the surface, one hot spot at a time.

“We’re in the very early stages,” Rosas says. “Kind of like a startup. Here in Minnesota, we have to be creative. If we want to be a successful organization, we have to glean advantages wherever we can.”

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

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.

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