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In this week’s NBA Power Rankings looks at the peaking Milwaukee Bucks, the Michael Porter Jr. show, Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles and more.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
Tobias Harris chasing 50/40/90
Tobias Harris’ shooting in last year’s playoffs was a major offseason concern for 76ers’ fans. He hit a good-but-not-great 36.7 percent of his 3s during the regular season but went just 2-of-15 (and shot 38.3 percent overall) in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics. As has been covered beautifully by both The Step Back and FiveThirtyEight, Harris has been a completely different player this season. In fact, he’s the only serious candidate for a 50/40/90 season this year. (Tony Snell has been lights-out but went make the minimum number of attempts in any category to qualify).
As of this writing, Harris is shooting 52.0 percent from the field, 40.1 percent on 3-pointers and 89.1 percent from the free-throw line. The 76ers have seven games left on their schedule and assuming Harris plays in all seven and earns around his season average of free throw attempts per game we’d expect him to get roughly 23 more free-throw attempts. If he went 23-of-23 from the stripe to finish the season he’d clear 90 percent but he actually only needs 17 more makes (without a miss) to get there. So keep your fingers and toes crossed the next time Harris at the line.
I know Russell Westbrook’s prolific box scores have taken some of the shine off triple-doubles and his teams’ continued struggles to turn his counting stats into wins has underscored the tenuous relationship they have with team success. But even if they are an arbitrary benchmark and even if they don’t really imply the kind of floor game that guarantees your team a victory, Westbrook is still racking them up at a rate that bears recognition.
I mean, setting everything else aside, they’re freaking hard to pull off, which makes them incredibly rare. There’s a reason only four players in NBA history have managed 100 of them. Only 14 players in NBA history, including Westbrook, have 32 or more career-triple doubles. Westbrook has 32 this season. He could play the Wizards next seven games without collecting a single point, rebound or assist and he’d still finish this season averaging a triple-double. Only one other player in NBA history has averaged a triple-double for a full season and no one else accomplished it for 55 years. Now Westbrook has done it four times in five seasons.
The triple-double, in and of itself, may be overrated. But as an emblem of Russell Westbrook’s unique greatness, it absolutely is not.
Darius Bazley in the lab
With very little in the way of realistic playoff aspirations, this season has been an incredible developmental lab for the Thunder with young players like Lu Dort, Theo Maleon, Aleksej Pokusevski and Darius Bazley getting chances to expand their roles and skillsets. For Bazely, it’s been a chance to try out more of an on-ball role instead of just functioning as a high-energy big man.
This season Bazley has recorded a drive on just over 30 percent of his frontcourt touches. Last season, it was roughly 24 percent. That seems like a small increase but considering that he’s playing a lot more minutes (12.8 more per game than last season) and getting a lot more touches in general (about eight more touches per 36 minutes than last season), the increase feels a bit more significant. And that’s not even considering his bump in effectiveness.
Bazley is shooting 43.8 percent on drives compared to 34.8 percent last season, while drawing a foul and recording an assist on a slightly higher percentage of his drives, with a turnover percentage that’s been mostly flat. The upshot is that the Thunder have been able to create meaningful opportunities for a 20-year-old power forward to get reps as a secondary creator, growing into a more versatile role that could play huge dividends down the road.
The Michael Porter Jr. show
The Nuggets’ hopes for a deep playoff run seemed doomed when Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending ACL injury and then Will Barton suffered a hamstring injury a few days later. But somehow the Nuggets are 9-2 since Murray went down, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.9 points per 100 possessions and still posting an offensive efficiency that would rank in the top 10 across the entire season, despite losing their second-best scorer and creator and another key offensive cog.
How they’ve done it, is by letting Michael Porter Jr. go en fuego. Since Murray’s injury, Porter is averaging 25.0 points while shooting 56.9 percent from the field and 49.4 percent on 3-pointers. He doesn’t offer much else but his shot-making has been elite and more than enough to keep the Nuggets’ offense running smoothly. He’s shooting 57.1 percent on drives, a smooth 31-of-62 on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers with a 56.7 effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers.
At a time when the Nuggets need buckets, Michael Porter Jr. is getting all of them.
Bucks beating the best
The Bucks appear to be peaking at the right time. They beat the Brooklyn Nets twice in three days (albeit in two home games and while the Nets were without James Harden) and their point differential is now the best in the Eastern Conference by a decent margin, even if they trail both the Nets and 76ers in the standings. The trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are looking increasingly comfortable together and the Bucks have outscored opponents by an average of 13.0 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the floor over the past 10 games.
However, the confidence-building of their wins against Brooklyn may be the most important new wrinkle. They may be uniquely suited to handle the Nets’ star scorers on defense and Giannis has been an absolute tear over his last 10 games — averaging 27.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game, shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 36.8 percent (!!) on nearly four 3-point attempts per game.
The Bucks’ potential path to the Finals will likely run through Brooklyn and/or Philadelphia and after these two recent wins, Milwaukee is 2-1 against Brooklyn on the season and 3-0 against the 76ers. They are not without their blemishes but the Bucks are looking stronger and stronger at just the right time.