This wasn’t the easiest week to be a fan of the NBA but there were still a few things bringing joy amidst all the scandals.
As an NBA fan, this was one of the most discouraging weeks I can remember. The Spurs released promising young wing, Josh Primo, over the weekend for what turned out to be repeatedly exposing himself to a team psychologist — a story that somehow got worse as the week went on and more details were revealed. On Thursday, Miles Bridges was sentenced to three years of probation but no jail time for a brutal domestic assault that occurred in front of his two children and put his then-girlfriend in the hospital.
Then there was the blatant anti-Semitic behavior from Kyrie Irving, his repeated non-apologies and subsequent suspension. In all that mess the Nets and Steve Nash mutually parted ways with the team appearing set to replace him with Ime Udoka, who is himself currently serving a year-long suspension from the Celtics for an improper relationship with a female staff member.
All that is to say, this was a tough week to just concentrate on basketball and find simple joy in the beauty of the best players in the world doing their thing. But here are a few things that helped make basketball fun this week.
Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland making sweet music
The Cavaliers got to see their new All-Star backcourt for exactly 13 minutes on opening night before Darius Garland left with an eye laceration that held him out of the next five games. Those five games were all wins for the Cavs, as Donovan Mitchell exploded, carrying the offensive creation responsibilities and establishing himself as an early MVP candidate.
Coming into the season, there were questions about how well Mitchell and Garland would gel, both in sharing offensive responsibility and in holding up on defense as a pair of 6-foot-1 guards. Those questions, particularly about the offensive balance, seemed even more pressing after Mitchell’s absolute dominance in Garland’s absence.
I am happy to report that, at least for one game, there appears to be nothing to worry about.
In their first full game together, Wednesday’s 114-113 overtime win over the Celtics, Garland and Mitchell combined for 54 points, 18 assists, 9 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Cleveland was plus-6 in the 33 minutes they were on the court together and plus-3 in 15 shared minutes across the fourth quarter and overtime.
There were still a lot of actions that felt like “my turn, your turn” and only one of Garland’s four assists that went to Mitchell really felt like it relied on meaningful synergy. But that one assist was pretty dang spectacular.
I will admit that at this point in my adult NBA fandom, my primary rooting interest is less for any specific teams or players and more for everyone to play their best, in settings that maximize their potential and appear to make them happy. From that perspective, it’s hard to to be rooting for the Cavaliers right now.
The Orlando Magic’s ultra-big lineups
Bol Bol (7-foot-2) has become a feature of the Magic’s frontcourt rotation, often playing with Wendell Carter Jr. (a 6-foot-10 center), pushing Paolo Banchero (6-foot-10) to nominal small forward and Franz Wagner (who, at 6-foot-10, would play a lot of minutes as a small ball 4 on many other teams) to shooting guard or point guard.
So far this season, the Magic have played 82 minutes with that at least four of that group and/or backup center Mo Bamba (7-foot) on the court together. In those minutes, Orlando has outscored opponents by a whopping 17.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a massive bright spot for a team that’s 2-7 and has been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions on the whole.
These lineups have been particularly strong on defense. Although they’ve benefited from some unusually cold opponent 3-point shooting they’ve also controlled the paint with their size, allowing opponents to shoot just 49.4 percent within 10 feet of the basket and limiting them to an offensive rebound on just 19.1 percent of their misses.
Bol is the only real shot-blocking threat in that group but his mobility and defense in space, shutting down interior scoring opportunities without having to be anchored to the paint, has been a game-changer.
The Magic still have a lot of issues to work through and my preseason prediction that they’d be fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament is looking naively optimistic. But watching them figure out creative, unconventional ways to maximize their personnel has been a reliable source of joy in the early part of the season.
Nikola Jokic to Aaron Gordon is the NBA’s best connection
Jokic’s passing has long been a reliable fount of basketball delights but he’s working on a different level this season. With the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and the addition of versatile offensive contributors like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown, Jokic is averaging a career-high 9.1 assists per game this season.
With Jokic, you can pretty much pick your pleasure — full-court bounce passes, delicate threading to cutters, precision lobs from the 3-point line. But this year, I’ve particularly enjoyed his interior connections to Aaron Gordon, allowing one of the best dunkers in the NBA to really unleash some power.
Jokic has already recorded 15 assists to Gordon for shots at the rim so far this season, more than any other combination on any team in the league.
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Kyrie Irving talks, suspended, then apologizes
- Kyrie’s press conference: In the afternoon, Kyrie Irving spoke to reporters and answers to questions over whether or not he held anti-Semitic beliefs were not definitively answered. Here is everything he said.
- Kyrie’s donation turned down: The Anti-Defamation League subsequently turned down his $500,000 donation which was announced the night before in a joint press conference with Irving, the Nets, and the ADL. “We were optimistic but after watching the debacle of a press conference, it’s clear that Kyrie feels no accountability for his actions,” the ADL’s CEO said.
- Nets suspend Irving: The Nets suspended Irving for at least five games. In a press release, they said Irving was failing to live up to the values of the organization.
- Conditions for Kyrie Irving’s reinstatement: The statement went on to say: “We have decided that Kyrie will serve a suspension without pay until he satisfies a series of objective remedial measures that address the harmful impact of his conduct and the suspension period served is no less than five games.”
- Kyrie Irving’s apology: Irving posted late on Instagram a blank, black photo with a lengthy apology.
- Finances: Kyrie Irving will lose at least $251,747 for the five games he will miss.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the reaction of other NBA players, or lack thereof
The reaction among NBA players to the Kyrie Irving situation has been shockingly quiet.
- Kareem, other NBA retirees speak out against anti-Semitism: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote about Kyrie Irving — and what Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley have said on the matter — in his Substack. Abdul-Jabbar commended Shaq and Barkley for condemning Irving’s anti-Semitic comments.
- Current NBA employees: Steve Kerr spoke on the importance of being, “vigilant as a society,” of not accepting “destructive,” and, “insulting,” comments.
- Lack of vocal condemnation from NBA players: Robin Lopez retweeted Abdul-Jabbar’s Substack link. Otherwise, NBA players have been largely silent on the matter.
- Diversity in the league: Deni Avdija is the only Jewish player in the NBA.
James Harden will miss a month with injury
James Harden suffered an injury.
- The injury: Harden suffered a tendon strain in his right foot according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
- The timeline: Harden will miss a month.
- Harden’s impact: Harden is averaging 22.0 points per game, third-most on the team behind Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. The Sixers are 4-5, good for eighth in the Eastern Conference as of Friday morning.