Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In The Loopus With Canis Hoopus: 10 Games Down

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This is the first In The Loopus that I wrote the whole thing before writing the intro. It’s also the first In The Loopus written from my new apartment, hence the delay. Since I’ve already written what is objectively way too much (I blame the mobile editor app not having a word count), let’s get right to it.

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Greater Fields Ahead: The Question for MarJon Beauchamp

When the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Damian Lillard, they certainly didn’t see it going off the rails this quickly. Dame has been largely inconsistent outside of the fourth quarter, where he’s been extremely consistent. Giannis Antetokounmpo got ejected for mean mugging. The bench has been borderline disastrous and the defense has been worse. Additionally, there’s some real irony to the fact that new Head Coach Adrian Griffin has been going through what a kind person would call growing pains, when the current roster fits the scheme of recently-fired former coach Mike Budenholzer far better than what I assume Griffin wants to do.

In an early season of so much meh, the Bucks have had few bright spots, so I’m going to coin a new nickname for one of them. Let me tell you about MarJon “Bright Spot” Beauchamp.

Those who know me, know I love watching the G League Ignite team and have a real soft spot for the league as a whole. MarJon was a part of an Ignite roster that featured Jalen Green and Dyson Daniels (who’s in the middle of his own breakout) and was clearly lower in the shot hierarchy. As a prospect, it was Marjon’s eagerness on defense that popped off the screen when watching film. At 6-foot-7 with an over 7-foot wingspan to match, he was a fluid athlete that moved from one to four in defensive assignments while the aforementioned Daniels usually chased guards around. Offensively, Beauchamp made his own life a little more difficult than it needed to be, often turning open shots into contested drives, but that same eagerness was there and his full court sprints and finishes showed the good in that.

The Bucks are experiencing the same ups and downs that the Ignite did from MarJon. He has been a lacking shooter and is not finishing at a high enough level around the rim to necessitate it being the primary pillar of his half court play. But, he is still an effective player in full court situations and one of the few above average perimeter defenders on a team that has a drought of them after moving off Jrue Holiday for Dame. It’s because of reasons like this, and injuries to Jae Crowder, that Beauchamp has climbed into the rotation and into a more regular role.

Perimeter defense remains the weakness of this roster, along with systemic inconsistency in gameplan on either side of the ball, and it’s a need the Bucks will likely make a move for. The ultimate question as it relates to Beauchamp is: does he help Milwaukee more as a player or as a trade asset?

I like MarJon as a prospect, as I usually do when it comes to former Ignite guys with do-it-all abilities and solid athleticism. If we’re going to talk about former Bucks youngsters, I felt similarly about Jordan Nwora — solid defender, good shooter, glimpses of on ball creation — before he was dumped in Indiana and disappeared. Unfortunately for the Bucks, this is when trading five second rounders for Jae Crowder really hurts. They’ve been in the rumor mill for Alex Caruso, who will assuredly cost them Beauchamp because of the lack of any other assets. The Bucks have the unfortunate situation that most championship teams have at the end of their window. They no longer have time to wait out a rookie contract. The same decisions they could’ve been making in restricted free agency are now made after year two. Now, they need to figure out if Beauchamp, or fellow surprise rotation young gun Andre Jackson Jr., are worth that wait.

2023-24 NBA Globals Games - Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Mavs, Moneyball and Most Improved

Last week, I mentioned Grant Williams’ improved play in the story pups. This week, I’m willing to give him and his team some more shine. But, it’s not just Williams who has been reborn in a shockingly good Dallas Mavericks wing rotation, it’s all three forward signings from this offseason.

Josh Green returned on a three-year, $41 million extension. Williams left Boston for a four-year, $54 million payday. The Mavs have gotten a ton out of those two, whose combined contract value is less than that of Cam Johnson, but it’s an extra cherry on top to have also brought in Derrick Jones Jr. for under $3 million. Jones has been excellent for the Mavs; so much so that if the award was actually for what it’s named after, he would be the favorite for Most Improved Player. The dunks and athleticism have never been the question for Jones Jr. It’s also not really an explosion in his three point shooting, nor in his defense, which was always quite good. No, in a mirrored situation to that of Bruce Brown, who was stuck at power forward despite clearly being a guard, DJJ has been removed from the small ball five role and has returned to being a forward.

It helps Jones that he’s playing with Luka Dončić, whose single handed gravity makes the life of those around him simpler, but the entire wing rotation is so ridiculously synergistic. Grant Williams has returned to being a lights out shooter from the right corner, having made 55% of his shots from there, and is shooting 49.2% from deep while taking a substantial leap into career high territory in volume. It helps that he was an extremely cohesive player for the Celtics before failing to make any real steps with Joe Mazzula as he had for Ime Udoka. The Celtics went from employing a complicated and more movement oriented, switch focused scheme to a more brute strength style of “chase everything, switch as little as possible, and just be good individually.” The connective tissue of Williams was made obsolete, but has been a hyper-active replacement for Dorian Finney-Smith in Dallas.

That’s the beauty I see in the Mavericks’ defense. With two negative defenders handling the ball, the Mavs have done a great job of maximizing every dollar spent and have crafted a starting lineup that just, I don’t know, works. I can go deeper into the play of Josh Green, who has continued his play from last year’s contract earning campaign, or into rookie Dereck Lively II, who is finally living the “I’m sure that lob threat would be good next to Luka” experience and minimizing the Dwight Powell minutes.

The Mavs have faced an incredibly light schedule (the easiest per NBA Guru’s metric), so I won’t be putting too much stock in their 9-3 record, but the point stands that the team is winning. Dončić hasn’t changed. Kyrie Irving hasn’t changed. The most transformed part of the team has also been the factor that has taken a team that tanked for the last month last year and dragged them to positional excellence. Every team in the league should be looking for undervalued talent in the same way the Mavs have.

Indiana Pacers v Minnesota Timberwolves

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Overdrafts and Second Chances: Halliburton is Fixing Busts

Whenever a wide receiver or tight end or any pass catching player signs with the Kansas City Chiefs, the entire world lauds it for both sides. “This guy will be playing with Patrick Mahomes and be coached by Andy Reid.” They’ll say, “he’ll post a career year playing in KC.” Despite the dialogue being more stilted than a David Lynch script, there’s this theory that any player with high measurable talents will be taken to a different level when fed perfect opportunities. In some situations, it works out. In others, you have Kadarius Toney.

However, this is not a football column, it is a basketball one, so let me rephrase this all: whenever a center or power forward or lob threat of any kind is moved to the Indiana Pacers, you only need to ask how Tyrese Halliburton can augment his talent. That’s exactly what has happened to two former 2020 lottery picks, Obi Toppin and Jalen Smith.

As a native New Yorker, I can tell you that Toppin was universally loved precisely two times during his time with the New York Knicks. First, when he cried after getting drafted and explained how much it meant to him to return home. And second, when he pulled off a mid-game eastbay dunk. There’s honorary other moments but those two are the peaks of Toppin’s time with the team that took him eighth overall. He never managed to recreate the play that made him a National Player of the Year at Dayton.

Jalen Smith was drafted by the Phoenix Suns at 10th overall in 2020 and was seen as this weird hybrid between recently-traded Sun Cam Johnson and more-recently-traded Sun Deandre Ayton. “3 and D” is thrown around with such regularity that the Suns attempted to draft and develop Smith, or Sticks, as pick-and-roll threat like Ayton (remember 2021 Ayton?) and a shooter like Johnson. Despite being seen as a massive overdraft, there were certain moments for Smith that made him seem like a real player going forward before he was dumped to Indiana so James Jones could trade for Torrey Craig for the fourteenth time.

It’s not an uncommon situation. Someone gets drafted high, disappoints, and succeeds in a lesser role elsewhere. In my opinion, second draft stories are some of the most impressive and heartwarming in the entirety of the NBA story business, and Indiana is telling many of them.

Putting everything on Halliburton is not only unfair to the Pacers roster, but also to the changes that Toppin and Smith have made individually. Toppin looks so much more comfortable attacking close outs and it’s made him usable as a backup plan on offense off a kickout, instead of the previous roll man or bust style he needed. Smith has improved so greatly as a rim protecter and general help defender and has finally made a jump in his shooting.

As a lead share holder in the Jarace Walker fan club, it’s conflicting to see two other power forwards get so much more playing time and opportunity than my third ranked prospect in the draft last year, but player development and good basketball is far more fun than being right. The Pacers are building something.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Bears. Beets. Bulls are Bad at Basketball.

For years, the Chicago Bulls’ slogan was “See Red.” Real bulls see red and become possessed with such ridiculous fighting spirit that they’ll chase anything they can to prove their existence. For bulls, red is a color of strength in the face of danger and sheer, extreme perseverance and grit.

These Chicago Bulls are seeing a red light and are peacefully and meekly listening to traffic laws.

This Bulls roster was built without any real long-term goal. This team was put together like the first time you go shopping as a college student. You buy Hot Pockets, sandwich bread, chips, popcorn, and whatever else you can find before you realize “Oh, I’m on a meal plan, and I’ve spent all my money for the term.”

Here are the facts: the Bulls traded Wendell Carter (who is better than Nikola Vucevic), a pick that became Franz Wagner (who is better than Nikola Vučević), and another that became Jett Howard (who is a rookie, but is likely better than Nikola Vučević) for the most over-appreciated big man the world has seen since Antoine Walker in Nikole Vučević. At least Walker had personality, but Vučević has got to be one of the worst investments a team has made and persevered with in a while.

Chicago hasn’t made many trades outside of the Vučević disaster, but the player that this team was built around — Zach LaVine — wants out, and it makes sense. LaVine might be the team’s only positive developmental project since the change of the decade.

Patrick Williams looks shell-shocked, and might get sold at the low point of his value, all because the Bulls took a worth-while project with no plan for his offensive or defensive growth and stuck him at power forward and asked him to guard the whole team. Coby White is just a more extreme version of the player he was at UNC. While the fit between team and player was obvious, the Bulls tried to trade him for three years and now signed him to an extension to be their own (worse) version of Jordan Clarkson. Ayo Dosumnu has been tossed aside despite an excellent rookie year and an overhated sophomore stretch. All-NBA player Lauri Markannen was dumped for a highly protected first-rounder.

The only effective members of these teams were free agency splashes who should likely be on a different team come February. DeMar DeRozan has played his best basketball for a team with no stakes. Alex Caruso has been trapped in Chicago because of Rob Pelinka’s cheapness. Lonzo Ball has not played basketball in two years because of one of the more odd injury situations in a while.

There are no silver linings for this team. There are no silver linings to this era. There are no silver linings to this season.

It’s just all bad in Chicago, and they’ll stumble their way to a seventh pick because the GM is trying to keep a job that he has done poorly. I’m sorry, Chicago. You have the Bears, the Bulls, and the White Sox. That’s a miserable big three for a fan. It’s hard to not feel bad for a city that is depending on the Cubs to be its best.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament

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Western Conference Overview

If this has been written on time, I would’ve been able to say that the Denver Nuggets sat definitively atop the West with only two losses. However, due to real life events, it’s not, and the Nuggets lost to the New Orleans Pelicans and are now sitting all the way down at… third in the West. The Timberwolves now sit atop the Western Conference standings after a win over the Pelicans on Saturday night. Behind them, the Thunder have continued to climb thanks to the best rookie duo we have seen in a long time in Cason Wallace and Chet Holmgren. Jalen Williams continues to prove me right, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A storyline to keep an eye on is Josh Giddey’s slow start becoming a bit of a theme, which could leave him as the odd man out of this rebuild.

The Sacramento Kings sit in fourth in the West after thoroughly demolishing the Los Angeles Lakers behind huge nights from their two franchise players. Behind them, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets are doing the impossible and playing more than one side of the ball. Alperen Şengün has established himself as the best player on the team and Dillon Brooks is continuing the be the best heel in sports outside of the WWE. The Lakers are another team above .500, holding the No. 6 spot, but are back to being LeBron dependent once again. Pelinka may have to hit the trade lines if he wants to make another WCF trip. We highlighted this in week one, but after two weeks of attempting to limit James’s usage until the final frame, the Lakers have simply put the world on his shoulders and he continues to respond. Keep in mind, LeBron is supposed to be on a 30-minutes-per-game limit this regular season.

The Suns and Pelicans sit at 7-6 and 6-7, respectively, and would probably be higher if their stars didn’t miss as many games as they have and likely will continue to. Behind them, the Golden State Warriors have lost six straight and seven of their last eight after starting 5-1. Draymond Green is suspended for putting Rudy Gobert in a headlock and could not be happier about it. Steph Curry is dealing with a knee injury. Klay Thompson is dealing with age. The Los Angeles Clippers currently sit outside of the play-in race but finally won a game with James Harden. After them and the Utah Jazz at 11 and 12, respectively, the evidently rebuilding San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers bring up the rear at 3-10 alongside a still miserable and ailing Memphis Grizzlies team who are 3-10 and will be missing Marcus Smart for a significant amount of time.

In-Season Tournament - Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Story Pups

Smart Injury and Gilyard touches — Initially, I had a longer form section on how Jacob Gilyard was boosting the second unit in a way that seemed sustainable and helpful to team success. He was filling a void that only two other players on the active roster, Marcus Smart and Desmond Bane, could. It was an uplifting story, one of a diamond in the rough, a glinting surprise in the darkness of this season.

Well, talk about adding fuel to the fire. Smart will miss a significant amount of time with a left ankle injury and we are still 13 games out from Ja Morant’s return. Gilyard had strung together a nice few games. But, going from bench contributor to starting point guard is a large step. As the Grizzlies’ injury report grows longer and longer, they need more and more unknowns to step up. Gilyard is the first of what could be many new Grizzlies legends. Unfortunately, those usually establish themselves in lost seasons.

Detroit, I’m so sorry for speaking — Pardon my emotional state, I read ‘Flowers for Algernon’ this week in which a man rapidly gains intelligence before losing it just as quickly. This is ‘Flowers for Babytron.’ I spent the last two weeks praising the Pistons who have found themselves at the bottom of the East. Detroit, I’m so sorry.

Why I like the idea of more draft rounds I’m putting the cart before the horse here. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that he wants the NBA draft to emulate the NFL, it was pretty clear he meant that they wanted to split up rounds one and two instead of the six hour dead sprint it currently is. I can tell you that I personally have loved being at Barclays Center until midnight watching second-round picks fly off the boards, but I am also a degenerate, and I am not trying to sell TV deals.

But, what if Silver took more inspiration from the NFL Draft than just splitting the experience into multiple nights? What if we added more rounds? I’m here to vouch for that. The obvious upside to that situation is that more players get drafted, which means even more wholesome draft videos and more life changing evenings for young men who love basketball. But the added effect, and the one I really want to stress here, is an improved and far more fluid trade environment. Late-round picks in the NFL make trades far less risky and far more possible. Startable veterans are more movable. There’s an extra half step that can be taken. More assets are in the pool so more moves are made.

I don’t care that Jordan Poole got booed, I love him anyway It takes a different level of confidence to show up to work everyday simultaneously not caring but also playing at the highest level in the world and being a top 100 professional in your field. I don’t just love Jordan Poole. I aspire to be like him one day. We do not dream of labor friends, we dream of joy.

Checking in on the Nets Let’s keep this short because this has rapidly gotten extremely long. Mikal Bridges isn’t hitting threes and is having a down year on defense. Cam Thomas is injured. Cameron Johnson is not moving forward as anything but a supplementary floor spacer. The main thing balancing this disappointing start of the year is free agent acquisition Lonnie Walker IV, who has been phenomenal on a one year deal and should ideally be brought back with how much cap space the Nets have next year.

Should we shorten the season? (Feat. Jack Borman and Ryan Eichten)

Weekly Heroic Contributor: Bismack Biyombo

This is a new section I’m adding for an individual player, usually a role player, I think deserves more credit and is as such my hero for the week. This week it’s Bismack Biyombo, who has been on the roster for every Memphis Grizzlies win this season and is contributing on offense in a continuously underrated way: offensive rebounding. This week he had two notable double doubles and is just generally a joy to watch when he turns back the clock to his Raptor playoff days. Congrats Bizzy!

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