This week, we’re talking the Grizzlies continual injury carousel, the Lakers’ sinking ship, the win-win Raptors/Knicks deal, and Duop Reath.
Happy New Year Everyone!
Last time we spoke, it was December 23rd. This is supposed to be a weekly column.
And I apologize for that. Do you remember that feeling from when you would come home from school and lie down for a nap only to wake up at 3:26 in the morning, demolish the half-finished water bottle that has been sitting next to your bed since the start of time, and be filled with such a profound sense of confusion and a surreal displacement? That’s how this feels.
It’s 3:26 AM, mentally speaking. Instead of watching infomercials, let’s talk about basketball.
Let’s get to it.
Icarus’ Folly: Memphis’ Nightmare of a Season
Last we spoke, Ja Morant had returned to the Memphis Grizzlies and immediately saved them from a miserable stretch. Even with an injury report the length of a Target receipt (shout out Ryan Rollins), Ja showed up, dropped 30+ in three of his first four games, and was on track to drag the Grizzlies to at least a semi-competitive season after being in a massive hole in the Western Conference.
Well, after a 6-3 record in nine games with Morant back in the lineup, the Grizzlies announced that Ja would be missing the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
And now, Marcus Smart is out once again with another finger injury and Desmond Bane is set to miss at least six weeks with a serious ankle injury.
It just keeps getting worse. Steven Adams has a PCL tear and is out for the year. Brandon Clarke tore his Achilles last year and will be back in the next 6-8 weeks. Derrick Rose is positively washed but would still be able to help soak up guard minutes if it wasn’t for a hamstring injury.
The Grizzlies still have talent. Jaren Jackson Jr. has struggled with increased offensive responsibility, but even if the long term outlook on his ceiling may be dampened, his floor is high as a quality inside — outside complementary star. Bane will be sidelined for a while with a grade three ankle sprain and it remains to be seen if he continue to grow as a playmaker, which has been less of a jump than a leisurely walk so far, but improvement nonetheless.
But, the obvious beneficiaries of what is absolutely a lost season are the young guys. The Grizzlies have been collecting late first round and second round picks since the rebuild started. They’ve had success stories with Bane and Xavier Tillman Sr. Now, this is the chance for Jake LaRavia (when he returns from a short-term absence) and David Roddy, as well rookies GG Jackson, Jacob Gilyard, and Vince Williams Jr. There is still Ziaire Williams, the former 10th overall pick whom the Grizzlies traded up for, and Santi Aldama, who was playing well before, you guessed it, injury. But those four will now have an opportunity they haven’t had in their careers. In fact, it was the 19-year-old Jackson who replaced Bane, joining Gilyard, who showed his capacity in replacing Morant and Smart earlier this season.
On the team-building front, this is now a team stuck in the middle. They will not want to sell off pieces in hopes of chasing a stretch run next year. However, one year of lottery luck could completely change this team’s long-term outlook. The Grizzlies are already quite good, but could you imagine slotting in Alexander Sarr in the front court next to Jackson Jr., opening the court even more for Morant’s paint crashing? What about replacing the wing vacancy, which has become more of an issue than it was with the departure of Dillon Brooks (who I was right about and is in fact a good player), with the enigmatic Ron Holland or even Lithuanian Matas Buzelis (Grizz-ful Dead shirts will hit my redbubble if this happens)?
I’d expect Smart to be moved no matter what. Luke Kennard will be in demand, but quality movement shooting off the bench is in demand because it is so hard to find. The Grizzlies will likely not sell, because no team with this level of organizational continuity will ever willingly take a step back as it will likely cost them their jobs.
The Grizzlies season was excusable with Morant’s suspension. It is now excusable with his injury. But, having an excuse doesn’t mean you should use it. You are 15-25. This roster without Morant is mediocre. We’ve seen that. Pushing now seems counterproductive for anything outside of reputation.
Steve Smith, the Lakers, and Terrible Mock Trades
No, I am not talking about the former Portland Trail Blazers guard.
Last year, Steve Smith Sr., legendary Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver, coined the term “JAG.” In an on-air rant, the incensed Smith yelled into the void in the direction of Denver Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy.
While it continues a tradition of Smith and other former greats slandering current players in what is just such a weird way to flex your reputation, the nomination of JAG or “just a guy” is a guy is an excellent way to frame replacement level players. You don’t trade for them. Their value exists in free agency, but not as trade assets or playable options in the regular season.
And you know what, that’s what the Los Angeles Lakers’ roster is: a bunch of JAGs. And even more annoyingly, despite the fact that I am fully used to this from them, they expect to get back stars for them.
There is no fanbase more represented than the Lakers. It is not hyperbolic to say that the franchise is the face of the NBA. They have never had a truly terrible era (the post Kobe Bryant years lasted three years, that is not an era.) They have the most championships in the Association’s history. Their color scheme is obviously iconic. Bla bla bla. From stars to location to wins, it makes sense why fans of the purple and gold are so ubiquitous.
But, oh my god, does it result in some of the stupidest, ball-un-knowing conversations. What used to be a package of Talen Horton-Tucker, Kyle Kuzma, Kendrick Nunn, and a couple of firsts is now D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, and a protected 2029 first-rounder. Don’t forget to sprinkle a handful of second-rounders. Every franchise does this to an extent. Everyone wants to get something, but no one wants to give.
The Lakers will likely rearrange the roster quite a bit. They are 5-11 since winning the In-Season Tournament. They have movable contracts in Russell, Hachimura, and Taurean Prince. They have a gaggle of second-round picks, as well as the furthest removed first-round picks possible. However, are any of those players any more than JAGs? They are simply contract filler for a large deal with a flawed player. If Austin Reaves, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis are all unavailable, then it feels insane to expect as much as they do.
This feels more malicious than making lemonade out of lemons. Lemonade was made when the Lakers had young players to send out, as well as real picks. The Anthony Davis trade was the biggest pitcher of lemonade the Lakers had made ever. That’s not what I’m talking about here. The Pau Gasol fleecing gave a generation the belief that the Lakers are entitled to stars for nothing. They are not making lemonade, they are selling houses made of cardboard. Most infuriatingly, they have continued to pull those deals off.
This was not meant to be a rant. This was meant to focus on how the Lakers could rebuild their roster on the fly. But, it seems the rules of other teams don’t apply to LA. It’s hard to put into words and harder to predict. Instead, let’s pivot and then come back to who they could conceivably get.
OG of NY: Trade Season is Kicked Off
We got our first big trade of the in-season when the Toronto Raptors swapped OG Anunoby, 2020 draftee Precious Achiuwa, and draft-mate Malachi Flynn for Canada’s Homecoming King RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley.
Barrett had long since been dangled by the Knicks, ever since signing a four-year/$107 million contract extension that ensured he’d become the big contract the Knicks would send out in search of a star. Quickley, on the other hand, was a draft success story that the Knicks found redundant to Donte DiVincenzo even after IQ nearly won Sixth Man of the Year, finishing second last year.
Both have flourished in their first handful of games in Canada. Barrett in particular has been something he never was in New York: decisive. The former third overall pick is no longer petering out on his drives or struggling to put up threes off the catch without the threat of the shot clock. Barrett is averaging 19.3 points per contest to go along with nearly seven rebounds and three assists. Most amazingly, the Duke product is making a reassigned shot diet at a better clip. In 26 games with the Knicks, he was shooting around 42% from the field and 33% from distance. As a Raptor, those numbers are up to 56% from the field and a baffling 50% from three. This could be a hot streak post-trade. Those are not new. But, a near 20% jump in effective field goal percentage is an insane step to take for someone who was considered an over-used, untrustworthy offensive option.
Quickley, on the other hand, was the apple of the eye of the North’s dino team. The perfect example of a young sixth man on a playoff team who could be so much more as a starter, IQ has responded to the increased responsibilities as a starter. He has been essentially the same player as a scorer, drawing an additional free throw per game from what he was in blue and orange, but the huge leap has been made with on ball creation for others.
Quickley the Knick was often playing off of Brunson or Randle as a spacer running around screens and scoring off the catch. That is how the Knicks are built to play, and that was what he was pigeonholed into doing. But, with more touches, IQ has essentially doubled his assists per game. What I’ve really loved, though, is just a logical next step from what he was doing in New York. The Raptors are using IQ as a screener, especially with Barrett as the handler, and letting Quick feast on switches and any delays in decision-making.
On the other side of the North/South border, Anunoby has returned to be an all-defensive lock type of player after months of lackluster effort and interest. The new look Knicks, despite a strange starting lineup that features a strange mix of non- and bad shooters and active creation with the overall attitude of the kids in middle school that would stare you down while just absolutely chomping on a crayon, have created a defensive leviathan. Even with the injury to Mitchell Robinson (and all credit to Isaiah Hartenstein, I should really be writing more about him, but there are only so many words I can spare), the Knicks have a staggering 109.5 defensive rating since trading for Anunoby. That would rank second in the NBA, only behind the (*smirking*) Minnesota Timberwolves at 108.4.
On offense, OG has been the exact same player he was in his glory days with Toronto; he’s been connective, intelligent, burly, commanding in the paint, and capable outside of it. I’ve been shocked at the simultaneous overlap and cohesion between OG and Josh Hart, who share skillsets and weaknesses, but I guess there’s no such thing as too many hard-nosed, “tough as nails” and other such platitude-inciting types.
Oh, and for those who have interest in the integration era of basketball (the era I did my college thesis on), the Knicks number eight jersey is among the most important in NBA history. Originally worn by the former Globetrotter and Harlem Ren Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton and passed on since, the jersey has been worn by legends like Walt Bellamy, Latrell Sprewell, and J.R. Smith.
Pretty cool company for the OG of NYC.
Western Conference Check-In
It is here that we need to say the simple truth: there are risers (Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz), there are fallers (Lakers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors), and, at this point in the season, there is a clear pecking order in the West.
The top tier is the Wolves, Denver Nuggets, and Oklahoma City Thunder. Arguments could be made for the Clippers (22-6 following 0-5 stretch after the Harden trade) and New Orleans Pelicans behind them, but until proven otherwise, those three teams are the conference’s creme de la creme.
The Sacramento Kings sit in the sixth seed at 23-16 and likely have the current Sixth Man of the Year favorite in Malik Monk, who leads the league in 20+ point games off the bench. Behind them, the Dallas Mavericks continue to struggle after an absolutely electric start to the season. 24-17 is by no means a bad place to be, but falling to the play-in after consistently floating in top-four seed territory is bad news for Dallas.
Separating one struggling team with a handful of others are the Phoenix Suns and Jazz who are slowly saving their seasons from the brink. Phoenix (7-3 in last 10) and Utah (16-9 in last 25) are arguably two of the hottest teams in basketball right now. They are also two of the biggest, most opposite case studies of team building in the association right now.
Now, we get to the broken, the beaten and the damned. The languishing Lakers are just north of the Rockets, who are teetering around .500 at 19-20. Behind them, we have the imploding Warriors, and the aforementioned unfortunate Grizzlies.
Behind that final grouping are the same mid-rebuild teams we’ve had all year. The Spurs and Blazers, although their highly drafted rookies get more and more impressive by the game, are just not good. They sit at 21.0 and 18.0 games back from the top seed, respectively.
Inside the Flaws that Make Stars Available — Zach LaVine goes down with injury and the Chicago Bulls turn back into a fringe playoff team. Dejounte Murray is back on the trade block just one season after the Atlanta Hawks traded three first-round picks for him. Pascal Siakam is stuck on a clearly rebuilding team.
Lavine’s injuries and contract. Murray’s extreme regression on defense. Siakam’s contract situation.
Stars players come available for many reasons, but barring trade requests, they come available because of their flaws.
We spoke about the Lakers pu pu platter of mediocre players and draft picks. That package has been surrounding rumors of Murray and LaVine. It’s not unlikely we see both get traded for less than we expect for a player of their caliber.
It also means that Toronto chose the perfect time to sell on Anunoby (this season, not beforehand), but that’s neither here nor there.
Jarrett Allen Buoys Cavs — This season in Cleveland seemed dead in the water when, within hours of each other, Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, the two drafted stars of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ core, were declared out for extended periods of time. Garland’s broken jaw and Mobley’s surgery on an injured left knee struck, Cleveland was a destitute 11-12. Since that seemingly month-long death sentence came out on December 15th, the Cavs are 9-3.
Can they thank Donovan Mitchell, who likely escapes trade rumors this deadline because of this stretch, or a galvanized team? Well, sure, it’s a team game, and Mitchell is averaging nearly 29 points a game in this stretch. But, the hero of this run has unquestionably been Jarrett Allen.
Allen is averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds in this stretch and has had a double double in every game save three. He’s been excellent and has been dominant inside with Mobley absent. There’s other notable names to mention, like Sam Merrill and Craig Porter who have had moments, and the Cavs have faced only three teams with more wins than losses in this stretch, and yes, they got to play the Spurs and the Wizards twice. But, these are the moments when seasons fall apart, and the Cavs haven’t let that happen.
The Best Fit for Siakam — Siakam has been mentioned largely and almost entirely as the Pacers to bid themselves up getting. Other teams have been mentioned, notably the Mavs and Kings, but neither is willing to give up long term assets for a player that will not sign an extension and will instead reach unrestricted free agency this summer.
No, a Pascal Siakam trade requires something none of those three teams have yet: desperation. You know who has a ton of that? The Warriors.
Combining the last gasps of this core with an angry Steph Curry and a penchant for disenfranchising young talent, and then adding in the stew pot of Chris Paul’s expiring contract and injury status along with the potential young assets (and non-trade request coach slander statements) of Jonathan Kuminga and to a lesser extent Moses Moody, and you have the perfect recipe for a team that needs a quality player and is okay with the risk of them walking in free agency as this roster honestly needs a teardown barring some miraculous turnaround. Siakam could fuel that turnaround. If not, he could be a sign that the Warriors are at least trying something for their franchise GOAT.
The Unanimity of Self-Victimization — This will be short.
Every. Single. Team. Thinks. The. Refs. Hate. Them.
The first step of being a sports fan in any league is letting them absolutely ruin a random Thursday night that could’ve otherwise been used for anything productive. The second step is concluding that the world is actually against you and everyone else has it better.
It is what it is. If everyone hates the refs, it must mean they’re at least a little bit fair and equal. Think about it.
Second-Round Sleepers In 5 Words or Less:
- Leonard Miller – So near, yet so far
- Andre Jackson Jr. – Why doesn’t he play more?
- Jordan Walsh – G-League shooting stats are confusing
- Rayan Rupert – Better in NBA than G-League
- Sidy Cissoko – I am sad, sleeper sleeping
- GG Jackson Jr. – Big opportunity, great for fantasy
- Emoni Baites – It’s Emoni Baites Time – JC
- Toumani Camara – Fave. Great frame, high effort
- Trayce Jackson-Davis – Kevon Looney lite. Incredibly Solid
Hero of the (More than a) Week: Duop Reath
Okay, imagine being an undrafted player in the year 2018, playing in Serbia, coming back to the states for a summer camp deal, playing in the NBL for the Illawarra Hawks mid-rebrand after an Aaron Brooks — LaMelo Ball experience ended, coming back for another summer camp deal, this time in Phoenix, only to once again not make it, so you go play in China for the Qingdao Eagles (who have some fantastic retro jerseys by the way), then going to play in Lebanon in the middle of a travel advisory in which Lebanon claimed it “could not protect travelers,” and then finally, amazingly making it to a two-way spot with the Blazers after being waived by them.
Oh, and he is from an area in now-South Sudan that was mid-civil-war when he was born.
Duop Reath is an incredible story full of perseverance, but he’s also an amazing player. I’ll leave one stat here before I call this one at nearly 3,500 words. Reath has an argument to be made that he is the most impactful “rookie” in the NBA this year not named Victor Wembanyama, Jaime Jacquez Jr., or Chet Holmgren.
See you next week, sorry about the delay. I’ll be changing my Twitter name to “Duop Reath Fan Club” if you need me.