An apology is in order.
Right about the time I was giving the FIBA World Cup a ‘meh’ review, whining about how the international action wasn’t good enough to satisfy my offseason hoops craving while we wait for the NBA season, things got very interesting — and wildly entertaining — in the quarterfinals.
Germany’s 81-79 win over Latvia was bonkers, with the victors led by Magic forward Franz Wagner (16 points, eight boards and plus-19 in 24 minutes) in his first game back from an ankle injury that kept him out for the previous four games. The Germans, who fell apart late and would have fallen if Oklahoma City’s Dāvis Bertāns hadn’t missed his deep 3 at the end, survived a nightmare outing from Toronto’s Dennis Schröder (who has been great otherwise in the tournament) and will now face Team USA in the semis on Friday.
But Canada’s 100-89 win over Slovenia, which earned them a semifinal matchup against Serbia on Friday, was the real treat. The Dillon Brooks versus Luka Dončić battle was epic, with the Mavs star spending all 29 of his minutes (26 points, five assists, four rebounds and a minus-12 mark) fighting through the kind of nonstop pressure and physicality that isn’t legal in his NBA life. Brooks, the exiled Grizzly-turned-Houston-Rocket who has played a massive part in Canada’s historic run on both ends, was ejected late (as was Dončić) but had done yeoman’s work by then.
Then came his postgame celebration in the tunnel, with boxing gloves and all, that was so beautifully on brand for “Dillon the villain.”
Talk about a Thrilla in Manila.
Dillon Brooks brought out the boxing gloves while waiting for his teammates in the tunnel after Canada’s win over Slovenia 🤣🥊pic.twitter.com/aVqczTj4NO
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) September 6, 2023
But in terms of NBA takeaways, it was the continuation of the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander show — 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and a plus-7 mark — that made you wonder what might be in store for the upstart Thunder this season. We’ll start there, then make the rounds around the Association while we wait for training camps to tip off (Sept. 27 for teams with preseason games outside of North America; Oct. 3 for everyone else).
The Summer of Shai
We already knew Gilgeous-Alexander was a problem for any and all comers. His fifth-place finish in MVP voting last season reminds you of that much.
But his World Cup showing has still been a sight to see, with Gilgeous-Alexander showing incredible offensive versatility, creativity and constant control. To put it more simply, he just makes it look so damn easy. In all, the 25-year-old is averaging 25 points (54.7 percent shooting overall), 7.2 rebounds, five assists and 30.4 minutes — fantastic numbers, to be sure. Still, his highlights from Canada’s latest win are a whole lot more fun to take in than his stat line.
For the Thunder’s purposes, it’s safe to assume the organizational excitement level is through the Paycom Center roof these days. It has been four years since he came their way in that Paul George deal with the Clippers, who feared at the time that they might regret letting Gilgeous-Alexander get away. Consider this passage from our story back then, co-authored with Jovan Buha.
“The most difficult concession (for the Clippers) was parting with Gilgeous-Alexander, their prized sophomore point guard who had become a beacon of hope for the organization. He’s the type of young tantalizing talent every smart front office loves — and a non-negotiable inclusion for the Thunder. The Clippers believe he is a future All-Star and were ‘heartbroken’ when they uttered his name on the trade call, as one person involved in the process put it. They didn’t want to trade him.”
Does it hurt any less if you predict your own mistake in advance? Likely not. But the Clippers couldn’t resist the chance to pair George with Kawhi Leonard, and so it was that the SGA era began in OKC. Yet if this summer is any indication, this Thunder program that general manager Sam Presti has rebuilt in recent years is about to take a massive step forward.
For starters, Gilgeous-Alexander will finally get to play alongside Chet Holmgren. The Gonzaga product who was taken second overall in 2022, and who missed his rookie campaign with a Lisfranc foot injury suffered last summer, showed out at summer league in Las Vegas and should fit in very nicely with this group. The Thunder feature young talents such as Josh Giddey (third season), Jalen Williams (second) and Lu Dort (fifth), and a fourth-year coach in Mark Daigneault who earned his second-place Coach of the Year finish after orchestrating a 16-game improvement last season.
In terms of the possibilities that lie ahead, there’s this massive factor too: OKC still has all those draft picks that Presti piled up in recent years (details here). Come trade deadline time, having that sort of asset haul tends to open up all kinds of tantalizing conversations. It all starts with SGA, though. And yes, in case anyone wondered, all those rival executives who were hoping he would want out of Oklahoma City less than a year ago appear to have given up hope on that front.
Brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks take Canada to Olympics
Don’t sleep on Ja and the Grizzlies
Ja Morant’s brutal season of missteps is in the rearview now, and guess what? Barring any more setbacks for the 24-year-old and his Memphis Grizzlies squad, their future remains exceptionally bright.
Morant will pay the price for his poor decision-making, serving the league-mandated 25-game suspension while hopefully making all the necessary changes in his off-court life. But in the bigger picture, with Marcus Smart on board now to bring a championship pedigree and the kind of defensive credentials that should fit in perfectly, this squad is going to be dangerous (again) once Morant returns.
More than likely, Morant will be back to play at New Orleans on Dec. 19. But as ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported recently, his return could be moved up to a Dec. 18 game at Oklahoma City if the Grizzlies manage to qualify for the championship game of the NBA In-Season Tournament on Dec. 9 (because Morant’s absence in that game would count toward his total). This is all assuming, of course, that Morant meets the NBA’s other (vague) requirements for his return: “He will also be required to meet certain conditions before he returns to play,” the June 16 statement announcing the suspension read.
Even with Morant missing 21 games last season, and with the season-ending injuries to big men Steven Adams (late January; right knee) and Brandon Clarke (early March; Achilles tear), the Grizzlies finished 51-31 (second in the West). That part shouldn’t be forgotten.
What’s more, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman and his staff deserve major props for landing a veteran in Smart who is ideal for their current plight (even if it did cost them the wildly underrated Tyus Jones, who went to the Wizards in that three-team deal). Not only does Smart’s competitive makeup fit in beautifully with the Grizzlies’ ethos, but the former Defensive Player of the Year is the kind of mature truth-teller they need right about now — and no one more so than Morant. And if the Grizzlies can avoid distractions, stay healthy and maximize this roster that remains elite, they might be “fine in the West” after all.
The Suns’ ‘Super Team’ experiment, Part II
First things first, you know you did something right this summer when the great David Aldridge puts you at No. 3 in his annual rankings of offseason moves. And even beyond the obvious coup of landing Bradley Beal, I would tend to agree that these Suns put in some quality roster work (most notably with the minimum-salary additions of Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe). But as we’ve seen with so many supposed super teams before, change can be hard — especially when it’s not quite clear who’s going to play point guard.
New owner Mat Ishbia’s choice to part ways with Monty Williams, playoff struggles and all, was surprising. He played a massive part in building that culture, as did the jettisoned Chris Paul (who was sent from Suns super team, part I, to the Warriors in the Jordan Poole deal with Washington). The transition to new coach Frank Vogel, with Devin Booker’s leadership and Kevin Durant’s voice being key along the way, will be interesting to monitor.
Speaking of Paul, the notion of him in a Warriors jersey is still strange, perhaps because he hasn’t actually done it just yet. But the even stranger sight, assuming it happens at some point, will be watching the future Hall of Famer come off the bench. Eighteen seasons into his storied career, the 12-time All-Star has started in all 1,214 regular-season games and all 149 playoff games in which he has played.
As Warriors coach Steve Kerr made clear early last month while with his Team USA squad in Las Vegas, nothing has been decided on that front. Still, it seems inevitable that some of Kerr’s chosen lineups will include Paul serving as a sixth man.
“I think that’ll be a case where you get three weeks of training camp before that first game,” Kerr told ESPN. “We’ll just look at all kinds of different combinations. … The main thing is we know all those guys are going to play a lot of minutes. But the luxury of having Chris Paul to add to this group that we’ve been lucky enough to have for a decade … pretty remarkable. He is one of the great competitors in the game. He’s one of the great point guards of all time.
“I think he’s a great addition for us, because of his ability to control games, control tempo, take care of the ball.”
The spirit of Kerr’s perspective is on point, as Paul does indeed bring a level of offensive versatility and experience that they didn’t have with Poole. But we all know that proud players care deeply about whether they start, and Paul made it clear in his own Vegas press briefing that he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his days of starting.
The goal for all involved, it would seem, is to maximize what Paul brings to the table while somehow avoiding the kind of uncomfortableness that proved to be so problematic with players like Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook in recent years.
“Even when you’re young, it’s ‘Starters vs. Scrubs’,” former Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala once told me.
He was right then, and it holds true now.
The Warriors intrigue hardly stops with Paul, of course. As our Tim Kawakami discussed at length recently with owner Joe Lacob, Golden State has made the bold choice to double down on the commitment to this (aging) championship core. It might not work — or maybe it will — but it will certainly be worth watching. This much we know, though: This proud and accomplished group certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.
Not only did Lacob make a championship prediction of sorts in the Kawakami interview, but Klay Thompson — who is next in line to land another big-time payday — capped his latest China tour by telling fans that he “can’t wait to come back to China next summer with a fifth ring.”
Speaking of which, Kerr deserves credit for quickly realizing in this Team USA journey that Anthony Edwards (17.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting, four rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game so far in World Cup) is far too special to be coming off the bench. As Vardon wrote on Aug. 24, Kerr spoke with Edwards early on about the possibility of him being a sixth man. Edwards, who clearly wasn’t too keen on the idea, has turned out to be the best American player by a country mile in his starting/starring role. And when it comes to FIBA World Cup entertainment value — no matter the hour of night — this alpha version of Edwards is worth losing sleep over.
To see him be this aggressive for Team USA, this dynamic on both ends, and this confident that he’s the best player on the floor at all times, is to wonder if Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch can find a way to unleash that side of him more next season than ever. No matter how Karl-Anthony Towns or anyone else might feel about it. By any objective measure, the Timberwolves should be his team.
Krawczynski: The Anthony Edwards ‘will leave Minnesota’ discourse is bad for NBA business
What’s next for Kings?
It’s never easy to make the jump from surprise team to tried-and-true contender, and that’s the challenge this season for the upstart Sacramento Kings. From De’Aaron Fox to Domantas Sabonis (who got paid) to second-year coach Mike Brown and all the rest, they’ll be out to prove that breaking the franchise’s brutal playoff drought was only the beginning.
More specifically, though, the celebrated arrival of Sasha Vezenkov adds a fresh layer to this situation that should make them even more of a League Pass favorite. They already had a historically good offense, with shooters galore all over the floor, and then they added a 28-year-old who just won EuroLeague MVP because of his ability to score at a world-class level. As Anthony Slater and I chronicled here, it was one of the more underrated upgrades of the summer.
The Kings have every intention of improving on their shoddy defense from last season (24th in defensive rating), meaning Vezenkov will need to find a way to do his part on that end as well. But his skill set and the mystery man component that comes with his arrival make him one of the more intriguing new players in the Association. On the other end of that spectrum, known commodity JaVale McGee was a nice late-offseason addition for the Kings (especially considering they won his services over the pursuing Warriors). The state of his 36-year-old game (beyond this recent highlight reel) remains to be seen, but I’m told the Kings’ optimistic plan would be for him to play a significant role.
Around the Association
• No one should be surprised that Dončić has been his MVP-caliber self for Slovenia in the World Cup. Even with his (relative) clunker against Canada, where he had 26 points, four rebounds, four assists and three turnovers while getting bullied by Brooks and fellow elite wing defender in Dort, Doncic is averaging 26.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 30.4 minutes. But his dominance is nothing new.
When it comes to his NBA life, the massive question this season is whether he can join forces with Kyrie Irving in the kind of way that justifies the three-year, $126 million deal the Mavericks gave him and quiets all the skeptics (yours truly, included) who are dubious of this duo. Then again, this latest loss for Slovenia – like so much of Doncic’s Mavs career – was a reminder that he can’t do it alone.
• Victor Wembanyama’s rookie campaign will obviously be a must-see attraction all the way through, but I have to admit that I’m glad the Spurs’ (latest) French sensation struggled so mightily in his summer league opener back in July (before bouncing back nicely in his second game). It was a reminder, amid all the hype that surrounds him, that he’s human. Young players take time, and there will inevitably be a need for patience when it comes to his progress.
• The Celtics will most certainly miss Smart, but I agree with DA (in his annual offseason rankings) that Kristaps Porziņģis might — might — turn into an X-factor in Boston.
• Will this be the year that Zion Williamson finds a way to stay healthy and give it a season-long go with these New Orleans Pelicans, or is an end to this ill-fated partnership on the horizon? For what it’s worth, our Will Guillory recently reported that Zion’s offseason work has been encouraging.
Been hearing good things about the work Zion’s putting in this summer.
Was told he’s been really focused on making sure his body is prepared for a long season. Think he’s gonna come in with a chip on his shoulder. pic.twitter.com/m1bkf4bhyc
— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) September 1, 2023
• Loyal listeners to the “Tampering” podcast (on our Athletic NBA Show feed) know that I can’t get through an episode without talking about the Lakers. It’s an addiction, I admit, and one that co-host Fred Katz has even deemed worthy of a (purple and gold) swear jar.
Far be it from me to break this habit.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had a very strong summer, which followed his very strong trade deadline back in February, and now we wait to see if the potential this group showed in its run to the West finals was just the beginning or perhaps a peak. Either way, the basketball world is always a better place when LeBron James has enough help around him to truly contend. And rest assured, after all the self-induced messiness that preceded the building of this roster, he has that now.
• Since I started with an apology, I may as well finish with one too. The ‘Summer of Shai’ subhead above was disrespectful to Nikola Jokić, who earned that title during Denver’s dominant run to the championship in June and kept the good times rolling with his horse racing exploits (and celebrations) back home in Serbia.
Until further notice, the “Joker” owns the summer and beyond.
(Photo of Shai Gilgeous Alexander: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images; photo of Ja Morant: Petre Thomas / USA Today; photo of De’Aaron Fox: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)