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Holy Bubble: Exploring Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The NBA departed from the “Big 3” formula of roster construction this season, leading to a slew of dynamic duos. The shutdown (and restart sans fans) means a financial crunch is coming; we could see this trend continue for the foreseeable future. So, let’s take a look at some of the top duos around the Association.

Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The King and Brow

We begin with the inspiration for this piece. Anthony Davis might be the best teammate LeBron James has ever played with. Perhaps you’ve heard, but James is in Year 17 of an illustrious career. His play, he’s averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and leading the NBA with 10 assists per game. It’s important to note James leads the NBA in assists because Davis leads the Los Angeles Lakers in nearly every other statistic.

It’s understandable, then, that some would take umbrage with James garnering the MVP consideration. How can James be the best player in the league this year when he “isn’t even the best player on his own team”?

Aside from the Lakeshow looking completely lost without Bron on the floor, you mean? Take Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets, for example.

With the Lakers clinching the 1-seed already, LeBron sat. Houston, though, was without Russell Westbrook (quad) too. This should have been a fairly even matchup, if not slightly in L.A.’s favor with Kyle Kuzma active and no comparable threat for the Rockets. Turns out, Kuzma certainly did his part to uplift the team in James’ absence. Davis, however, did not.

He didn’t have a bad game. 17 points and 12 boards is a solid performance for most guys. But it definitely wasn’t an ‘MVP’ performance against a depleted opponent. And it wasn’t befitting of the player deemed the heir apparent to the Lakers franchise.

This season, Anthony Davis has averaged 26.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game when he and LeBron are on the floor together (57 games). Without James (three games), Davis’ numbers take a hit, falling to 24 points and 1.7 assists. His blocks raise, but only slightly from 9.4 to 9.7 per game. Davis averaging fewer assist sans James is probably the most surprising stat.

When they share the court, James is putting up 25.2/10.2/8.1 per contest. James, by himself, is throwing up 27.6/11.4/7.6 per.

The disparity has been even more pronounced in the bubble. James started slow, averaging 19.3/10.0/6.3 in four games and sitting a fifth before playing against Indiana. Davis was 23.2/9.2/3.8 in that same span and the Lakers went 2-3.

It was LeBron with the 20-plus point performance while AD struggled (mightily) and the Lakers lost to the Pacers on Saturday. The margin was smaller than any of their other bubble losses, though.

James has a higher offensive rating and a lower (better) defensive rating. In fact, L.A.’s defensive rating is better with Davis off the floor. Without Davis, the Lakers are 6-2 and score 121 PPG. Without James, 2-2 at 110.5 PPG. Which brings us to James, at 35, having played in more games than the 27-year-old Davis. And when you consider Davis’ statistical advantages aren’t as great as some would have you believe, it’s not really that complicated.

The Process and Big Ben

Heading East, we find ourselves with two very polarizing players; both enigmatic in their own way. Joel Embiid might be the most dominant player in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal when he’s right; both physically and mentally. Ben Simmons is Magic Johnson-ish only bigger and faster. The lack of a jumper is a big hurdle for Simmons. For Embiid, it’s always a volatile mixture of health and focus.

Together, these two can be among the most fun to watch. But there are far too many moments of a lack of spacing due to Simmons’ defender sloughing off. And while Embiid has about as complete a game as you’ll find in the NBA, the most important ability is availability.

So who has been more important to the 76ers? The answer might surprise you if you didn’t answer “trick question”.

Like in the case of LeBron and AD, we see Simmons with a higher offensive rating but Embiid has a better defensive rating. But their records are very similar without each other, though this season it has certainly favored Embiid. Maybe these aren’t as good of indicators in this instance; or at least not in comparison to how they impact each other.

Embiid, in 165 games with Simmons, averages 24.9 points, 12.2 boards, and 3.4 assists. Without it’s 25.2/11.6/2.9; granted in a much smaller sample size of 10 games compared to 52 the other way. For Simmons, its 15.8/8.1/8.1 with Embiid and 18.3/9.0/7.5 without.

Philly is 27-25 with Simmons but without Embiid and 6-4 when the opposite occurs. Again, the sample size is an issue with deciding here.

But all of that is career numbers, what about 2020? Joel is 5-2 without Ben while Ben is 9-7 without Joel. Many will want to give Joel the nod for the higher win percentage but, clearly, after reading the first entry, you know we won’t be discounting availability here.

Simmons was putting up 11.7/7.0/4.3 in three games before being shut down and having surgery for a torn meniscus. While Embiid has been a monster in the bubble averaging 30.0/13.5/3.3 and the 76ers are 3-1 in Orlando, the injury looms large. Simmons will obviously miss the rest of the season barring, perhaps, a Finals appearance.

The comparisons to Shaq aren’t just hyperbole for Emiid’s stature, demeanor, and dominance. It also refers to the need to have that guard or wing player to truly unlock his, and his team’s, full potential.

Of course, the simpler answer is that they need each other. Ben needs Embiid to be the wrecking ball and Embiid needs Simmons to operate the crane. Together they have a win percentage well above .600, separate we see talented individuals that are missing something.

The Beard and Brodie

The Beard and Brodie were polarizing together before they were polarizing apart, reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. But their lore has only since that time. Russell Westbrook won MVP on the strength of averaging a triple-double for an entire season (something he did two more times after) and is having his best scoring season since then.

James Harden is on his third-straight season scoring 30-plus points and actually won his own MVP the season after Westbrook. He has been vocal in his pursuit of another MVP and even went as far as to take shots at reigning (and likely repeating) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This one isn’t really a “who’s more important” (it’s Harden) as much as it is people might not realize how important Westbrook is to the Houston Rockets.

He had developed a pretty bad reputation as a guy who cared more about the stat sheet than the win column. For running off superstar teammates in Kevin Durant and Paul George (neither of which appears to be true).

Swap out Westbrook’s name for Harden’s and Durant/George for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony and you can leave everything else the same.

But Houston went out and traded for Westbrook; “rescuing” him from the doldrums that were sure to hit the Oklahoma City Thunder (but never did). That sent two messages. First, it signaled Harden’s willingness to adjust, even if only slightly to bring in perhaps the only point guard who would need the ball more than Paul, and was a worse shooter to boot.

The other message was that at least one organization outside of OKC felt he was the missing piece to the puzzle. If you don’t think so just look at the changes made to the roster following Westbrook’s addition.

Westbrook is shooting just over 25 percent from deep (yuck). He’s never been a great three-point shooter, save for one season when he shot 40 percent. Houston’s system is a percentages game where they only take threes or layup/dunks. They allowed some mid-range stuff when they acquired Paul but Westbrook provided the unique challenge of floor spacing.

Houston’s solution was to move center Clint Capela and run an offense where the tallest player on the floor at any given moment is 6-foot-7. Think Golden State’s death lineup but more concentrated.

That’s a lot to change just for a pice or someone you brought in to placate the face of the franchise. Clearly, they have a much higher opinion of him than that. We’ll see how it pays off.

A Fresh Pair of Jays

The youngest pair in our deep dive into duo dynamics across the NBA, Jayson Tatum entered the league with all the fanfare and continues to be the more publicized of the two. And perhaps that is rightfully so, but Jaylen Brown entered a year earlier and has developed into a very key piece for the Boston Celtics.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is another one where we’re more highlighting the importance of the “sidekick” than asking who is better. Though, the answer to that latter question might deserve more scrutiny than most realize.

Interestingly enough, they were both selected third overall. But the similarities don’t stop there. They were both taken after the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers picked first and second, respectively.

Taytum was in contention to be the first-overall selection in ‘17 before ultimately going behind Markelle Fultz and Lozo Ball; a mistake that probably haunts some in the 76ers and Lakers organizations to this day. Brown was never going over Brandon Ingram, let alone number one pick Ben Simmons.

Brown’s first year he averaged 6.6 points per game while mostly coming off the bench. Tatum started 80 games and scored nearly 14 points per as a rookie. Now it’s worth mentioning that Brown’s output jumped substantially with more playing time as a starter.

More important about that season is it was Kyrie Irving’s first (of two) seasons in Boston but he missed the postseason allowing Tatum and Brown to shine on the biggest stage.

Here’s where it gets interesting because Tatum got all the hype for his 18.5/4.4/2.7 and, at just 19 years old, deservedly so. But Brown was no slouch. He came in just behind Tatum with 18.0 points, 4.8 boards, and 1.4 assists of his own. Brown was even the high-scorer for Boston, with a 34-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round; a series Boston won in seven games.

We also have to consider Brown’s defense. It’s Tatum who has the better Defensive Real Plus-Minus, but it is Brown who regularly draws the tougher assignment. That is both in terms of individual talent as well as variety.

Tatum’s maturation into a two-way player should not be overlooked by any means. But context is key and if we are going to praise one for realizing his potential on both ends of the floor, Brown might need to get those roses first. So far in the bubble, Brown is putting up the better line, but that is largely due to a horrendous first game from Tatum. Minus that game, they’re within a point.

Again, this one isn’t about who is better. Just, whenever we mention how stellar Jayson Tatum has been, we need to be sure to mention how important Jaylen Brown is and how far he’s come.