Basketball

Five NBA things I like and don’t like, including Devin Booker showing skills like Chris Paul

With “The Last Dance” debuting in 48 hours (!!!), let’s lead off this edition of 5 Things with some Chicago Bulls talk.

1. The Bulls’ biggest issue

Chicago’s decision to move on from Jimmy Butler when he was not even 28 stands as one of the bolder, maybe even dangerous, franchise pivots of the last decade-plus. The Bulls could have continued with Butler — then and perhaps still a borderline top-10 player — Nikola Mirotic, cap room in one or both of 2017 and 2018, and all their own draft picks. (Superior roster management before then would have made that path not taken even more attractive.)

Instead, they bailed out, fearing a supermax for Butler and wagering a teardown would give them better championship odds in the early/mid-2020s. In return, they received Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the right to move up nine picks for Lauri Markkanen. The trade also set them up to be bad in 2017-18, and nab another high pick: Wendell Carter Jr.

With Arturas Karnisovas displacing #GarPax, most of the focus will be on the futures of LaVine and Jim Boylen — Chicago’s embattled head coach. But the most important question facing Chicago in the near term is something else: Can the Markkanen-Carter front line become what the bullish (sorry) among us thought it could be two seasons ago? If the answer is no, the Bulls are doing nothing interesting over the next few seasons.

The development of Markkanen and Carter is of course linked to LaVine and Boylen. With a few exceptions, every player’s performance is at least somewhat dependent on the broader team ecosystem. Both Chicago bigs need a creative ballhandling partner to loosen the defense — to get them the ball with some small territorial advantage they can build upon.

Chicago’s point guards are not capable of that. LaVine can break down any defense, but he’s a score-first sort with so-so vision and timing as a passer. If Chicago finds better playmakers — through internal development or roster moves — Markkanen and Carter will look better. Same goes if the coaching staff can coax this roster toward a more coherent, flowing offense. Perhaps starting Coby White as de facto point guard — with LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen, and Carter — might juice playmaking.

Even setting aside context, both Markkanen and Carter have stagnated over the last year. Markkanen was better as rookie than he has been this season. That’s not great, considering he will already be eligible for an extension this summer. Injuries have played a role. Markkanen looked tentative early this season while dealing with an oblique injury, and then surged in December — before a stress reaction in his right pelvis (ouch!) vaporized another month.

He hasn’t quite found himself on offense. He should thrive as a screen-setter, picking and popping for 3s. If defenses switch to snuff that, Markkanen has flashed the ability to abuse smaller guys in the post. If defenders try to rotate and scramble back to him behind the arc, Markkanen can meander by them with a workmanlike — but effective — pump-and-go game. Trap Chicago’s ball handlers, and Markkanen slips into open space for midrange jumpers — or 4-on-3 attacks.

We haven’t seen enough of that guy. Markkanen looks like a lethal shooter, and projected as one, but he has only hit 35.6% — league average — from deep for his career. Can we really blame it all on Chicago’s lack of ace ball handlers?

And what should Carter be doing while Markkanen performs all that screening goodness? Is he lurking in the dunker spot to catch lobs? Is he spacing the floor? Remember: The Bulls envisioned Carter as an Al Horford-ish hub — a guy who could orchestrate with handoffs and canny passes. Markkanen and Carter actually ran some effective pick-and-rolls together during Carter’s rookie season.

They showed huge potential as an interchangeable screening combination: They toggled between diving to the hoop and spotting up, often as part of staggered screening actions.

Where did that go? The Bulls this season have turned Carter into a bystander. Markkanen’s one-on-one numbers — in both post-ups and isolations — have been bad since he entered the league. The Bulls are averaging 0.84 points per possession whenever Markkanen shoots out of a post-up, or passes to a teammate who launches right away — 74th among 84 guys who have recorded at least 50 post touches, per Second Spectrum.

He has fared much better posting up guards — often the happy result of a switch — but he has done that only 17 times, per Second Spectrum. Dirk Nowitzki, the unfair goalpost for Markkanen, used to do that five or 10 times in a single game.

That number — 17 paltry post touches against smaller guys — is a blaring indicator of minus playmaking and a wheezing offensive system.

I’m still high relative to consensus on both Markkanen and Carter — and on what they can be together. They should complement each other on both ends. They will improve as the team around them improves. Even if Markkanen can’t be The Guy on a top-shelf NBA offense — and he almost certainly can’t — he might still grow into a solid No. 2 as the fulcrum of a pick-and-roll attack.

But the Bulls need to see progress whenever basketball returns. The organization is responsible for helping engineer it. LaVine and White are, too. So are Markkanen and Carter. It’s time.

2. Kyle Lowry‘s iron shoulder

The Heat bestowed the “iron shoulder” moniker on Goran Dragic years ago for this running-back-style move, but Kyle Lowry has also mastered it:

That is for sure a foul, even if Donovan Mitchell exaggerates the impact — and it’s unclear if he does. Lowry is usually cagier concealing his forearm. If you’re 5-foot-11 with limited hops, you need to resort to some chicanery. It’s not really a foul if you get away with it.

It’s an interesting debate: Is the MVP of Toronto’s spirited title defense Lowry or Pascal Siakam? They have played about the same number of games and minutes. Raw numbers favor Siakam. Advanced stats have Lowry by a hair. The on-off numbers point to Siakam; the Raptors blitzed opponents when he was on the floor without Lowry, but barely won the opposite subset of minutes.

But the eye test says it’s still Lowry. You can tell when one player sets the identity for a team, and the Raptors take after Lowry. They play with a certain verve when he is on the floor. They run more. The ball whips around the horn.

They vibrate with energy on defense: on their toes, on a string, rotating and switching and swiping and throwing their bodies into driving lanes. (Lowry is tied for the league lead in charges drawn with Montrezl Harrell.) It looks frenzied, but there is a calm intelligence underlying all that buzzing motion — a deep, almost subconscious confidence that you and your teammates can outthink the opposing offense.

It has been a good year for Lowry believers. He was steady in Toronto’s championship run — pass-first and deferential to Kawhi Leonard when the situation called for it, and capable of bending the game to his will if need be. His closeout performance in Game 6 of the Finals — scoring Toronto’s first 11 points, staking the Raptors to an 11-2 lead — rewrote his legacy forever. Few players have changed the perception of themselves more in one game. It was a We are not losing stand from a player who has rarely shifted into that kind of scoring gear — a player who is not really built (physically) to even have it.

Lowry truthers lived through dark times. He belly-flopped in the 2015 playoffs, though he was battling a back injury and other maladies. Washington humiliated the Raptors in a four-game sweep.

He started slowly the next postseason, shooting horribly against a long-armed Indiana defense designed to torment him. The Raptors survived in seven games, but Lowry opened the next round — an unwatchable seven-game slog over Miami — bricking away again. He finished it with 96 points combined in Games 5-7, including a 35-point masterpiece to ice the series. It was then that Lowry’s postseason story began to change.

He was solid in the next round against Cleveland, though the Raptors could never really trouble LeBron James. Facing the Cavaliers a year later, Lowry was poised and productive — one of the only Raptors who appeared up to the challenge until he turned an ankle in Game 2, ending his season early.

He battled until the end against Cleveland in 2018.

Lowry was never going to be a regular 25- or 30-point scorer in the playoffs. Most guys his size just can’t shoulder that load against elite defenses. Part of being a Lowry truther was believing that even in those single-digit scoring games, he was doing all the little things to help Toronto win. That was often true. But sometimes, you need your best players to do big things, too. You need buckets. You need them to force it when no one else is ready or willing.

Lowry grew to understand that. He has been in full command of the game this season. These Raptors fear no opponent. They wouldn’t be the favorites in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but they can match up with anyone and play any style. No one would be excited about facing them. I hope we get to see an honest championship defense.

3. Devin Booker as Chris Paul

Does this look familiar?

Everything about that — Booker’s patience navigating Deandre Ayton‘s screen, the snaking path to his sweet spot, the smooth leaning release — screams Chris Paul. Paul has suffered a few high-profile postseason meltdowns, but he has also canned a lot of massive shots. He has been the best clutch player in the league this season. He usually ranks toward the top of such leaderboards. His teams almost always outperform expectations in crunch time.



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